Brooklyn, Mich. — Austin Cindric, behind the wheel of the Ford F-150 he races for Brad Keselowski Racing, clung stubbornly to the lead with 11 laps left in the LTi Printing 200 Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
The 18-year-old son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, drove like he was 20 years more experienced.
At every point of jeopardy for the previous 29 laps of stage three of the race, Cindric kept Christopher Bell’s Toyota Tundra and others behind him.
After Turn 2 on lap 11, Bell made a move. Cindric adjusted again.
But he had no answer for Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
“I made that move a little earlier than I wanted,” Wallace said of the key moment that brought him victory.
Wallace roared from back in the field to make it three-wide in Turn 3.
Those are desperate enough circumstances when the more aerodynamic NASCAR Cup cars try the trio abreast and Turn 3 can be a particularly perilous spot to do it at MIS.
“It was kind of crazy,” Wallace said.
But it worked. Wallace, who has spent the season bouncing in and out of rides, including replacing the injured Arik Almirola in the NASCAR Cup Series, managed to hold off Bell and a rallying Kyle Busch to win.
It was Wallace’s first truck race this season.
“Such a huge moment, not only for myself but for everybody involved,” Wallace said.
“This is such a huge win for me. It is good to be back in the truck series. I knew those laps were going to be hectic.”
They were terrific racing. The last dozen laps are just the sort of thing NASCAR and, arguably, other racing series require to reinvigorate motor sports.
Like Cindric earlier, Wallace probably looked more in his rear view mirror than out his windshield, once he grabbed the lead.
With two laps left, Bell made a strong move on him, but could not get by. Wallace kept the high side and retook the lead he had only briefly relinquished.
Busch, who fought his way back from towards the rear of the field after he got caught up in a four-car incident on lap 66, lurked behind Wallace and Bell.
But an increasingly frustrated Busch, stymied in many races this season despite having a quick car or truck, could not get a clear shot for the lead.
Cindric got edged again in mad dashes to the finish line and finished fifth.
“We weren’t necessarily the fastest truck all day, but I thought in clean air we were good,” Cindric said. “I think in qualifying we showed that, as well.
“I guess my biggest lesson from today is, honestly, I feel like I confirmed for myself that my race craft is there on these big tracks. Racing around guys like Kyle Busch, Bubba and Christopher Bell, these guys have done it all.
“I’m just privileged to be able to race those guys, and come out as well as we did.”
To win, Wallace overcame a pit penalty halfway through the race for crew members over the wall too soon.
He said his big move on lap 89 involved a considerable gamble, but one he felt he must take.
“It came way too early. I did not want to make that move,” Wallace said. “But I also didn’t want to be a sitting duck and let that opportunity go to waste.
“So I closed my eyes turned left, and I heard, ‘Clear!’” he said, referring to the guidance he got from his spotter.
“When I opened them back up, we were the leader.’
Wallace is yearning for a drive, next season, trying to assemble more sponsors and courting crews, as cost-cutting around NASCAR causes drivers to lose their spots on teams.
The win, especially with skilled driving, should be a boost.
“It’s big, you know?” he said.
“I’ve got a lot of people pulling for me to show up at the race track, to be there, to be in the spotlight, even when I’m not racing. And that’s so hard for me.
All I’ve done for the last 14 or 15 years is drive.
“This whole being pulled out from underneath is new.
“We’ve got a lot of good things working for 2018,” said Wallace, one of few black drivers in NASCAR.
“I said winning back in 2014 would bring sponsors. So, I know how this game goes. But I’m pretty confident this has helped a good amount, for what we’ve got going.
“We’ll just have to keep digging at it.”