By David Morgan, Associate Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – When all of the dust settled at the end of Sunday’s Verizon 200 at the Brickyard, a trio of NASCAR Cup Series rookies drove like veterans to bring home a top-five finish.
For all three of the rookies — Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton, and Todd Gilliland — it came down to being in the right place at the right time on the final restart as the race on the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was pushed into overtime.
The feat by Cindric, Burton, and Gilliland marked the first time since 1994 that three rookies have finished in the top-five in a Cup Series race.
Cindric, who started the day in second-place, faded to mid-pack through the first two stages, but as the laps wound down, the No. 2 Team Penske Ford was back in the mix.
On the final restart, Cindric dove to the bottom as the field charged into Turn 1, escaping out the other side of the chaos in second-place. Then Ross Chastain entered the fray after taking the access road, bulldozing his way into the lead over Tyler Reddick.
As Chastain and Reddick battled it out, it looked as if Cindric was in the catbird seat should those two get tangled up. Reddick would eventually shake off Chastain’s attack, dropping him right in Cindric’s lap. Cindric and Chastain raced each other hard over the final lap, with Chastain crossing the line in second and Cindric in third.
Then came the call from NASCAR that Chastain’s move was illegal, allowing Cindric to advance up to the runner-up position – his best finish since winning the Daytona 500 at the start of the season.
“That was nuts,” Cindric said. “Oh my gosh. I hope the race fans enjoyed that. Obviously, those green-white-checkereds it’s just caution out the window and everyone has fenders and bumpers to use, I guess. A lot to take in, a lot to handle. I’m glad we survived it all. It’s probably not the day I wanted with the Discount Tire Ford Mustang, but to come away with a good finish we’ll take it.”
Burton was also able to escape the fray of the final restart unscathed, piloting his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford into the top-five with a clear view of the leader’s battle out in front of him. He clicked off two clean laps afterwards and when all was said and done, was scored third on the leaderboard – the best finish of his Cup career.
Starting back in 13th and finishing the first stage in the top-10, Burton noted that he had a tough time early in the race, but after pitting with 24 laps to go, a set of fresh Goodyears allowed him the chance to do what he needed to on the final restart.
“Honestly had a bad execution day to start the race,” said Burton. “We tried to stay out for stage points and more people stayed out than we thought and got buried there, and then I made a mistake and got into Custer. I was spun out at one point. I was all over the place.
“It was a tough day for me and then got some new tires there before the last caution and started picking guys off and just got in a good place for those restarts. That was the big thing was being on the inside for those restarts and kind of plugging the middle and missing the chaos.”
Likewise for Gilliand, who used the final restart to his advantage, avoiding the spinning car of Ryan Blaney and bouncing off of his rookie counterpart Burton before slotting into fourth-place, which was also a career best for the driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford.
Gilliland explained that he has had a tough go of it in his first season at NASCAR’s highest level, but being able to finish in the top-five will be a big confidence booster going forward.
“It’s just really exciting,” Gilliland said. “This rookie season has been really tough. The Cup Series is hard. I’ve learned that. It’s easy to give up and that’s one thing, too. You have confidence when you come to the Cup Series, but you get beat down quick.
“Even just having a ninth-place qualifying effort and just to run up front the first stage. We stayed out and got stage points and kind of had to come from the back again, but that’s what me and my crew chief was talking about. That’s really our best weekend start to finish by far, so hopefully that’s just something to build on. For me, that’s a lot of confidence.
“Road course racing is tough, too. I’ve always loved it, but it hasn’t really loved me so much this year, especially the first time here at Indianapolis. That’s really cool.”
With Sunday marking a career-best day for Burton and Gilliland, both drivers laughed afterwards that the high-water mark for each of them came in the exact same race.
“I thought we might get some distance on at least the 38, but wherever he goes I go with him or vice versa,” Burton said. “Every race we’re on each other’s bumper, so hopefully we both just start running top five every week and we’ll be running up there together.”
“That’s what we were joking about, we can’t get away from each other,” Gilliland added. “We’re either battling 30th or 35th and now we finished top-five together. It’s really been like that our whole lives. We were saying once we start winning, it’ll be a whole lot more fun.”
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