Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton Embrace Rookie Challenges

Checking in on the top two rookies at the quarter mark of the season.
Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton Embrace Rookie Challenges

Tonight's race at Bristol Motor Speedway is significant for several reasons. It is the second dirt race for the Cup Series after the inaugural event last year. This time the race is at night, under the lights, and with the Next Gen car. It is also the first race on Easter Sunday since 1989.

This race tonight also marks the quarter mark of the 2022 season. There have been more than a handful of surprises through the first eight races, with more likely to come tonight. Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the season-opening Daytona 500 when rookie Austin Cindric went to victory lane.

While Cindric was quick to burst onto the scene, another rookie turned heads down in Daytona. Harrison Burton is more than just a second-generation Cup driver. The 21-year old has taken over the famed No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing - the car that Cindric was originally supposed to drive.

Both Cindric and Burton are battling for Rookie of the Year honors this season, along with Todd Gilliland. Although Cindric has the edge at the moment, the season is still young.

Neither driver has been particularly strong as of late. Cindric has just one top-ten finish (8th) since Daytona and Burton's best finish this season was a 16th place result at Las Vegas. They are 14th and 29th in the standings heading into tonight's race, where they will start 20th and 24th.

There is always pressure to perform in this sport, but especially when it comes to these two teams. Burton may be young, but he certainly knows the history of the team he is driving for, and feels the responsibility that he carries.

“It’s definitely a cool opportunity and a big responsibility to carry on that legacy and do it the right way," Burton said. "That’s not lost on me. I think the biggest thing for me is that I’ve kind of always put that same pressure on myself to perform and do well. External pressure doesn’t really change my mentality about things. We all want to do the best we can and I think that personality is the same with Wood Brothers and we’re all aligned with our goals. We just have to work really hard to go accomplish them.”

The theme this season has been first-time winners. Burton hopes to add his name to that list, which would be a monumental accomplishment. In addition to getting his first Cup win, it would be the 100th victory for the Wood Brothers. "Looking back on how bad I wanted to be in the opportunity that I have now, to have it, is really neat. The biggest thing for me is to understand that it’s a huge blessing to be here and an insane opportunity for me to be here and also understanding that I have to make the most of it.”

Back in Daytona, Burton went from leading The Great American Race to flipping over on the backstretch in the span of just a few minutes. An ill-timed push from Brad Keselowski started the massive pileup, ruining what could have been a storybook ending for the team.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Cindric, who had instant success in Keselowski's previous ride. The 23-year old became the first true rookie to win the 500 and the first to do so in the famed No. 2 car. Cindric rode the wave of momentum into the next weekend, earning pole position at Fontana, then qualified 3rd the following weekend at Vegas. Then, things got more difficult.

Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton Embrace Rookie Challenges

It was a tough stretch, but one that was not unexpected. "Last week was the first time I really had a normal week leading up to a race as far as not traveling during the week and a lot of different variables,” Cindric said. “The honeymoon phase is certainly over. Trying to figure out being a rookie in the Cup Series. It certainly isn’t easy.”

“It’s trying to figure out a new car and new situation and put that on top of new competitors and new team members,” Cindric elaborated. “There’s a lot of newness for me. A lot of that is an opportunity to grow, but in some ways, it’s good to have a new environment. But otherwise, just adapt and react and try to make the most of it and on the bad days, learn and on the good days, be happy they were good.”

While this is not a typical season in many regards, it is important to understand that these young drivers are still learning. So too are their teams, as they try to understand one another. “It’s a little early to tell as far as if we’re to overreact to anything,” Cindric stated. “But it’s a really tight-knit group on the 2 car, so I’m just trying to integrate myself into that and get ourselves a process going, which I think is important. There’s been some good and some bad, and we’ll learn from it.”

Burton echoed those same sentiments. “It’s a building process and I think everyone at the Wood Brothers and myself understands that this is going to be a building process,” he said. “It’s certainly a challenge and it should be a challenge. I think that’s what makes it awesome. I have a lot of things that are going on that I think are good and I’m learning a lot; but also, there are those days that can humble you really quick, and that’s good. That’s part of the learning process, and it’ll make you better over time.”

That is exactly what Team Penske and the Wood Brothers are counting on, in the long run.

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