Xfinity playoffs: Allmendinger-Cindric battle hits high gear

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On Aug. 14, Austin Cindric celebrated his NASCAR Xfinity Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course by warbling “Back Home Again in Indiana” over his team radio.

The rendition was a little off-key, but that was forgivable with his excitement. It was his fifth win of the season, and it gave him an 82-point lead over AJ Allmendinger in the regular season standings.

With five races left before the playoffs, the regular season championship and its bounty of 15 playoff points were in Cindric’s grasp.

But just two races later, they weren’t. Back-to-back DNFs for Cindric and a win and runner-up for Allmendinger gave the latter a 17-point edge.

It ultimately came down to the regular season finale three weeks later at Bristol. Allmendinger narrowly held off Cindric for the win and the regular season title in a gloriously chaotic finish.

The aftermath

One could argue that the dramatic swing in the last month would galvanize Allmendinger and demoralize Cindric entering the Xfinity Series playoffs, which begin Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET).

But during Tuesday’s Xfinity Series playoff media day, Allmendinger didn’t buy the idea of having earned a mental edge over the reigning series champion.

Instead, he saw his charge from fourth on the final restart to Victory Lane as proving that he and his No. 16 Kaulig Racing team will do whatever it takes in the postseason.

“I don’t know if that (is) a mental edge because I don’t know what Team Penske feels and how they’re thinking over there,” the 39-year-old Allmendinger said. “(But Bristol) definitely shows everybody in the series … if you give us a glimmer of hope, we’re going to take that shot at it and we can make it happen.

“That’s how we’re going to be through the course of these playoffs. I’m going to run every lap like it’s my last one. You never know. So, I’ll do what it takes to go out there and win these races and try to win the championship.”

As for the 23-year-old Cindric, he admitted Tuesday that the last five weeks had been “terrible” but it was time to move on.

“I can write a book – and it would be a pretty short story – on how to lose 100 points in two weeks,” the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford said. “It’s racing. That’s what makes this challenging, I guess.

“It certainly wasn’t my favorite point in time, but at the same time, I think we proved to ourselves and everybody else that when the heat was on, we put ourselves in position to win that race and win that championship.

“Unfortunately, it played out the way it did for us, but, nonetheless, I think there’s more to be said about how we approach those races and how we put ourselves in position and it was a good warm-up for the playoffs.”

Mutual respect

Everything resets in the seven-race run for the Xfinity championship.

Cindric and Allmendinger are tied atop the Round of 12 leaderboard with 44 playoff points each. They’ve combined to win nine of the 26 races. Additionally, they’ve earned nine stage wins apiece this season.

Anything can happen in this elimination-based playoff format, which the Xfinity Series has had since 2016. But things seem primed for the Allmendinger-Cindric duel to continue.

If that’s the case, some really compelling racing could be ahead. On Tuesday, both drivers said that the battle between themselves and their respective teams has elevated each other.

Allmendinger, of course, knows what Team Penske can do. He scored two Xfinity wins for Penske in 2013 before resuming his full-time Cup Series career in 2014.

Last year, he beat Cindric and Penske on two occasions during a part-time Xfinity schedule. But he still noted their pace week in and week out, something his Kaulig team has strived to emulate in 2021.

“We’ve worked hard to try and get there, and be there consistently – not just at certain race tracks but every type of race track,” he said. “Austin Cindric – he’s the champ. He’s made me so much better in trying to figure out each weekend: ‘OK, I’ve got to up my game, I’ve got to figure out how to be better at this type of race track and that type of race track.’

“As a whole, between Austin and Team Penske, they’ve made us a ton better here.”

While Cindric also added Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 “star car” entry as a group that’s pushed the No. 22 team to perform, he also was complimentary of Allmendinger and Kaulig.

“You look at (Kaulig Racing) as a whole over probably the last four or five years – there has been a lot of progress, a lot of growth within that team and I think that’s exciting for the series,” Cindric said.

“There’s obviously something to be said for that and they’re competitive and racing us for wins week in and week out, so you definitely can’t shy away from it.”