The 20-Year Old Record Austin Cindric Just Broke

After his 12th-place finish in Fontana’s Wise Power 400, 23-year old Austin Cindric became the first rookie driver in Cup Series history to lead the championship standings for two consecutive weeks. In two races so far this season, Cindric has a win and a pole, and has scored stage points on three out of four possible occasions. This has only been on ovals; Cindric’s reputation as one of the best road racers in the lower series could make him a serious contender for multiple wins. Should Cindric win any of the next 34 races, it would put him in elite company. In NASCAR’s modern era, only seven drivers have won multiple races as rookies, and none since 2006.

Though it is definitely too early to claim Cindric among the best rookie performers in NASCAR’s history, his two consecutive weeks (so far) at the top of the standings is an incredible record in its own right. The only other rookie to lead the Cup standings in the modern era is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson’s rookie year in what was then the Winston Cup Series was overshadowed by the simple fact that, despite winning more races and finishing higher in points, he lost the Rookie of the Year title to Ryan Newman due to a unique ROTY points system that has since been abolished. But Johnson’s rookie year was perhaps the most impressive debut campaign in NASCAR history. 

The El Cajon, California native cut his teeth in off-road racing, first on two wheels, then in rear-wheel-drive trophy trucks. His team, Herzog Motorsports, eventually transitioned into stock cars, entering Jimmie first in ASA and then NASCAR Busch Series competition. 

By the time Jimmie Johnson was hand-selected by Jeff Gordon as the driver of the new Lowe’s-sponsored #48 for Hendrick Motorsports, he had won only a single Busch race – the inaugural event at Chicagoland Speedway– and was best known for a spectacular crash he had suffered at Watkins Glen, a crash he thankfully escaped uninjured. Johnson debuted for HMS in three races at the end of 2001, scoring a best finish of only 25th. 

Pairing Johnson with crew chief Chad Knaus, a former member of Gordon’s own pit crew, was a stroke of genius. The two immediately worked well together, and Knaus was able to supply Johnson with some of the best cars on the Winston Cup circuit. In February, Johnson became the first rookie driver to claim the pole for the Daytona 500. Two races later, he scored his first top-10 in Las Vegas, and backed that up with his first career top-five in Atlanta the week after. He then came top-10 in four of the next five races, including three in a row. 

In the 10th race of the season, at Fontana’s California Speedway, Jimmie Johnson won the first Cup race of his career. The #48 car took the lead on the final restart and held off Kurt Busch for the last 14 laps.

Johnson had been hovering around the top-five in points since Atlanta. After the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Johnson would stay fifth or better in the standings for the final 24 races of 2002.

Johnson won the spring race at Dover in just his 16th start, tying a record held jointly by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Davey Allison as the earliest two-time winner in modern Cup Series history. When he won Dover again in September, he became the earliest three-time winner outright, (at 31 starts) as well as the first rookie to score a season sweep of a track.

Though perhaps the highlight of the season was a week later at Kansas, where a solid 10th-place finish in a race that saw points leader Sterling Marlin suffer a crash and season-ending injuries put Jimmie Johnson and the Lowe’s #48 team to the top of the standings. Johnson became the first Winston Cup rookie to lead the points standings in the modern era, and he did it with only seven races remaining in the season. For the first time ever, a rookie driver had a legitimate shot at the championship. 

However, at Talladega a week later, Johnson blew a motor and lost the points lead. He would eventually slip to fifth in the final standings.

When Johnson emerged onto the Winston Cup circuit, he lacked the lower-series resumé that Austin Cindric has. When he made his full-time debut, he had only won a single race in NASCAR’s lower series, and had only ever won three times in stock cars at all. Hendrick and Gordon took a chance on an unproven young driver, and he delivered immediately. Before going on to win seven championships, he set a rookie record that stood for 20 years. 

The early 2000s was the age of the rookie superstar: of the seven drivers to win multiple races as a rookie, all except Davey Allison debuted between 1999 and 2006. However, by the CoT and Gen-6 eras, rookie success was harder to come by: out of every non-weather-shortened event between 2009 and 2022, only once did a rookie come first (Cole Custer, Kentucky 2020). Today’s stars Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Kyle Larson took a few years to win races, let alone become regular front-runners. 

After only two races, it is certainly too early to say, but it may be possible that the clean slate promised by the Gen-7 car will allow this year’s rookies the chance to put up the kind of numbers we haven’t seen since the mid-2000s. At the Clash, I was able to ask Harrison Burton if he felt that his fellow first-year drivers could have an advantage in adjusting to the NextGen car. He answered (I’m paraphrasing here) that the Wood Brothers believed they could, and that was why the team hired him. With all drivers starting from scratch, he isn’t necessarily disadvantaged by being inexperienced, however the top Cup drivers are so good at what they do that they are sure to learn quickly. 

Austin Cindric, who has been top-10 competitive in both races so far, may have just proven this. Burton has run well too, though he has been twice eliminated by someone else’s crash. Time will tell if this year’s rookies are able to keep up with the veterans’ mastery of the NextGen car, and if the new platform will continue allowing rookies to compete up front in the years to come. 

Regardless, Austin Cindric will be entered into the history books as having doubled a 20-year-old record set by one of the greatest NASCAR champions of all time, and he could very well keep it going this weekend in Las Vegas.

Featured Image from Jeff Gross/Getty Images on

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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