Transaction Analysis: What to expect from Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton
A major driver shakeup will find Austin Cindric driving Team Penske’s No. 2 car in 2022 and Harrison Burton in Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car.
What should we expect from Cindric and Burton, the two newly promoted drivers, and how should Matt DiBenedetto, Burton’s predecessor, be viewed on the open market? Let’s dig in:
Austin Cindric to Team Penske
Brad Keselowski’s era in Penske’s No. 2 car brought a championship and 34 victories in Cup. Finding an equivalent driver, one able to keep the team’s legacy afloat in the Next Gen era, was never going to be easy. It’s not known whether Cindric will develop into a Hall-of-Fame-caliber talent a la Keselowski, but the building blocks are there and, conveniently for Penske, he’s family — father Tim is the company’s president — nurtured internally for the last six years.
Thanks to a rigorous cross-training regimen that included F2000 and Global RallyCross — he claimed an X Games bronze medal in the latter — Cindric is a uniquely built talent, a world-beater on NASCAR’s road courses since the day he climbed behind the wheel of a stock car. He’s won 13 times at NASCAR’s national level, five of them coming in road races.
His aggression is a polarizing attribute but one for which Penske — which employed Kurt Busch, Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano within the last 10 years — clearly pines in its drivers. And while this trait rubs competitors wrong at times, its effectiveness is plain as day:
With his 76.09% retention rate, Cindric is the best non-preferred groove restarter among Xfinity Series drivers aged 24 or younger — a group consisting of 17 drivers with six or more starts this season. It was a restart that helped him win last fall’s Xfinity Series title in Phoenix and it’s short runs that stand as his calling card, practically a requirement in replacing Keselowski, the best short-run driver in the series right now. His predecessor is more cultured in the nuances of Cup Series restarts, but in time, Cindric could mimic Keselowski’s feistiness within the sport’s most crucial two-lap windows.
Cindric’s ability to overtake on long runs is probably not where it needs to be, given he’ll soon face a slate of races 100 to 200 miles longer than his current norm. He is a positive surplus passer from a top running position in the Xfinity Series, but that’s a skill in large abundance among prospects; he only ranks in the 59th percentile compared to other drivers in his age group and far below the likes of Ty Gibbs, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones. When slotting into a perennial playoff seat, this is a potential weakness, an area he’ll look to improve upon prior to 2022.
While it appears some in-roads have been made in his passing — his +4.80% surplus passing value in five Cup Series races this year on non-drafting tracks is a higher mark than any current series regular — it’s most likely a result of cherry-picking his tracks. The easy takeaway is that he’ll make an immediate impact on road courses, already Penske’s best bet to cut into Chase Elliott’s advantage on a track type that occupies nearly 20% of the current schedule.
How quickly he develops for the remaining 80% of the schedule will dictate the totality of his initial production, but for the long haul, this is about as good of a like-for-like replacement for Keselowski that Penske could find among the existing crop of prospects.
Harrison Burton to Wood Brothers Racing
When TRD president David Wilson stated last fall that Toyota “doesn’t have anybody that is ready to go in a Cup car,” that included Burton, who won four times in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in 2020. At that point, the writing was visibly on the wall, making Burton’s jump to Ford and Wood Brothers Racing a little less surprising.
After a season in which his 2.318 Production in Equal Equipment Rating fared better than Chase Elliott’s rookie-year Xfinity Series PEER (2.152), Burton’s encore effort in 2021 has amounted to a significant letdown; JGR has collected seven wins in 18 races, but the 20-year-old hasn’t chipped in any of his own. Part of this could be due to the promotion of crew chief Ben Beshore from Burton’s pit box in 2020 to that of Kyle Busch in the Cup Series this season. But Burton’s made some improvement in his underlying numbers that provide some positivity in an otherwise difficult campaign:
Compared to drivers aged 24 or younger, he’s a below-average passer but his current ranking (the 47th percentile) and his surplus passing value (+0.60%) are leaps above last season, which saw him turn in a negative surplus (-2.09%). Improvement in long-run passing and on non-preferred groove restarts - where he’s cut his average positional loss per attempt from 1.07 to 0.55 - have factored into a 73-position swing in spots created on the racetrack beyond what’s statistically expected. It’s progress for a young driver that isn’t totally visible when poring over his results.
Still, there’s plenty of risk here for the Wood Brothers team, going from one of the best restarters in the Cup Series to one who just found footing on restarts in NASCAR’s second tier, even considering Burton’s moments of brilliance, like his final restart from a non-preferred groove launch point that led to a win at Homestead in 2020. The rookie-to-be is in for a rude awakening when he discovers the level of pre-meditated physicality on Cup Series restarts.
His high ceiling seems to come with a low floor; he’s produced negative PEERs at the ARCA East level (in 2016) and in a part-time Xfinity effort (in 2019), statistical blips that should cause any evaluator some pause. But if a slow assimilation is correctly expected by his new team — he’ll be the youngest driver in the Cup Series, after all — then there’s no readily available reason why he shouldn’t turn out a serviceable spell in what’s largely a stepping-stone ride.
Matt DiBenedetto is without a ride for 2022
DiBenedetto is simultaneously overrated and underrated.
Adored by his fans as a consistent underdog, DiBenedetto is, unfortunately, not a star driver, lacking an all-around acumen that can carry teams with borderline elite speed to multiple race wins.
He is, though, a driver with elite tendencies, namely his restarting, where he ranks as a top-five restarter from the preferred groove (based on position retention rate) and across all 550-horsepower tracks. It’s an acumen that fueled the fourth-best PEER in races ending with at least one late restart, making him one of the sport’s most reliable short-run threats.
And while his overall production output appears easily replaceable at first blush, drivers of his ilk don’t grow on trees. His efforts on short runs are the result of deliberate study — Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are his favorite subjects — and the fact that’s he’s able to execute in these vulnerable moments of races is enough to make him a worthwhile hire for a team seeking a more pronounced short-run identity.
In that sense, the Penske alliance, featuring a fair share of superb restarters, was a good spot for him to hone his craft; however, the organizational focus on 750-horsepower tracks doomed him to an extent. His PEER currently skews towards 550-horsepower tracks and coupled with a season that’s predominately seen a low caution volume (with fewer restart opportunities) and just six races culminating with a late restart, it’s yielded a relatively poor overall PEER (0.786, ranked 21st overall) at an inopportune time:
Additionally, the Wood Brothers team, primarily with crew chief Greg Erwin, failed to assist DiBenedetto in the area where he lacked — long-run passing. To this point in the year, it’s fair to say DiBenedetto’s done precisely what’s expected of him, based on his peripheral stat profile, while the team and crew chiefs — Jonathan Hassler was promoted as Erwin’s replacement on June 8 — haven’t done the requisite amount of heavy lifting needed to push a fringe playoff team past the cut line. Despite the good vibes brought by Hassler, the team’s had a slower average median lap rank since he took over, 21st, down from 19th with Erwin.
It’d suit DiBenedetto well to land with a team desiring to focus on 550-horsepower tracks — but by virtue of this, likely not a serious title threat — and willing to build on his short-run prowess. He’ll be fortunate to find a job at all, much less one perfectly aligned with what he does well as a driver.
It’s very likely that the Wood Brothers, a fringe playoff program, had in DiBenedetto a driver of an equal status, only to discard him in an effort to find someone better. For DiBenedetto, the parting is hard; finding a team on even footing with the one he’ll leave will prove difficult, especially with a slew of other interesting driver options available on the market.
But DiBenedetto does bring a usable skill and a stat profile most other teams should find attractive. Whether they engage him to drive their car is another question entirely, a commitment to a particular, precise style of success.