ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — After a long, hard-fought race on Road America’s demanding 4.048-mile course, Austin Cindric had one more task as Sunday afternoon turned to evening.
He walked the length of pit road to reach Victory Lane — where Tyler Reddick celebrated his first career Cup win.
When Cindric arrived, he lifted Reddick and gave his friend a bearhug.
“I think of anyone in the field, he probably deserves that win more than anybody else,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I think he’s put himself in position. He’s a really likable guy, and I feel like you can see how hard he works.
“I’ve seen him mature as a driver and a person and as a friend and a father. It’s cool to see somebody you’re close to go through that.”
What Cindric has seen up close, NASCAR fans have seen from afar.
“What a crazy ride it’s been,” the 26-year-old Reddick said of his journey to Road America’s finish line.
Reddick is a two-time Xfinity Series champion who seemed destined to win his first Cup race but had to watch as Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez each scored their first career Cup victory this year.
It was only four years ago that Reddick questioned his driving abilities after a miserable weekend at this track in the Xfinity Series.
Road course racing used to be Reddick’s greatest weakness. Road courses are where he scored his first Cup pole (Circuit of the Americas last year) and now his first Cup win.
Through all that, Reddick faced one more obstacle on his way to winning: Chase Elliott.
Before he could take on Elliott, Reddick had to resolve issues he had with Road America in the Xfinity Series in 2018. He went off course in the mist during practice, struggled in qualifying and knew if he would have made another qualifying effort he would have wrecked.
“I was just so far off here four years ago that it just had me really questioning if I had what it took,” Reddick said.
Less than three months later, he won the first of his Xfinity championships.
But his road course struggles followed him to Cup. The 2020 Charlotte Roval race proved a tipping point for Reddick.
“I remember kind of really screwing up Kevin Harvick’s race because of where I had to brake,” Reddick said last year. “He was not even thinking about (braking) yet, and he ran into the back of me and knocked his nose in and really messed up his day.
“I was tired of just being so bad that I felt like I was just kind of in the way and had to get out of everybody’s way and wanted to change that.”
With an emphasis on road courses, Reddick went on to win the pole last year at Circuit of the Americas, but his limited ability in the rain prevented him from winning there.
Still, that growth spurred other changes.
“It was really inspiring,” Reddick said. “It made me really look at the other racetracks I wasn’t good at and try and figure out what I can do, what we can work on to get better, what are we missing.
“It really opened up a part of my brain that I wasn’t really even really prepared to use and just was able to not just get better at road courses, (but) get better at the places like Loudon and Martinsville … just the oddball tracks that I wasn’t good at.”
Reddick looks back to this race last year and the Indianapolis road course event where he felt he had a good car but he had to chase stage points instead of a win since he was battling to make the playoffs on points. By going for stage points, it put him out of position to go for the win because of track position.
Even though Reddick entered this weekend outside a playoff spot, the focus was on winning and not stage points.
That put him second to Elliott when they both headed down pit road with 20 laps to go.
Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion, is the winningest active series driver on road courses and won this race a year ago. He controlled the race before Reddick followed him off pit road. Reddick passed Elliott with 17 laps left and moved into the lead a lap later.
Elliott continued to pressure before Reddick eventually pulled away.
“I didn’t do a very good job there,” Elliott said after his runner-up finish. “I just let him stay close enough to pressure me there while we had decent tires and never could get enough of a gap. Made a couple mistakes.”
Even as Reddick led in those final laps, his teammate, Austin Dillon, provided Reddick’s team a scare.
Dillon had a brake rotor explode. He was told to pull off the course as quickly as possible to avoid creating a caution that would eliminate Reddick’s lead.
“I’m glad it didn’t bring a caution out for sure,” Reddick said. “But hey, I would have been ready for it, honestly.”
On this day, it all came together and after having finished runner-up in five previous Cup races, Reddick was the one cheered as the checkered flag waved.
“He deserves it,” Suarez said of Reddick. “He’s been doing a good job. I’m not surprised. … He was kind of like our situation, the 99 team. It was just a matter of time.”