By Cole Cusumano
There’s arguably no better time to be making your debut in the NASCAR Cup Series. Vying for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award will always be difficult, but there’s likely comfort in knowing the entire field will have to acclimate to the new Next Gen car. With all signs pointing to an even playing field, the stacked incoming class seem primed for one of the most unpredictable battles in decades.
Ironically, the trio competing for Rookie of the Year honors will all be driving Fords and have long-standing familial ties to the sport; Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton and Austin Cindric.
Gilliland is making the leap from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and has taken the most progressive strides over the years among the incoming rookie class. Many had the third-generation driver written off after a slow start, but he’s now coming off a career-best season and inheriting the Front Row Motorsports No. 38 his father (David Gilliland) drove later in his career.
The 21-year-old will be one of the youngest athletes competing at the Cup level in 2022 and acknowledges it will be a struggle, but also views this opportunity as immaculate timing in conjunction with the introduction of the Next Gen car.
“Everyone’s learning the car that you’re racing,” Gilliland told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I think it would’ve been definitely a big disadvantage going in last year or the last five years, because the cars have been so similar for 10-15 years. I’m sure I still have a lot to learn behind those guys on the race track, but hopefully the car alone will level the playing field a bit.”
This will be Gilliland’s second go-around at competing for Rookie of the Year. He’s seeking redemption after losing to Myatt Snider in the Truck Series by 21 points in 2018, even though he had more top-10s, laps led and a pole in less starts than his competitor.
Luckily for Gilliland, one of the drivers he’ll be going up against in the Cup Series is a former teammate and good friend.
Following the decision to part ways with Matt DiBenedetto, the Wood Brothers snatched up Burton from Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the infamous No. 21 car. The four-time Xfinity Series winner will attempt to add to his father Jeff Burton’s legacy, while blazing his own trail and hopefully capturing win No. 100 for WBR.
Burton and Gilliland have been racing against each other since they were five years old. The journey they’ve shared has been nothing short of inspiring and it only seems fitting they’ll be entering the top-level at the same time.
“There was a time when I really disliked Todd, because he was fast and we were fighting for the K&N East Championship against each other,” Burton told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “After that we became really close and he’s been a really good friend along the way.”
“We had a really good rivalry through K&N,” Gilliland added. “We battled for a championship there, we were teammates through Kyle Busch Motorsports and then from there he moved to the Xfinity Series and I was worried for a little bit. I thought he was going to get to Cup before me, but it’s all in fun.”
Joining them as the final Rookie of the Year contender is someone the new driver of the No. 21 went to high school with: Austin Cindric.
Wrongfully labeled a silver-spoon kid being the son of Team Penske’s president, Cindric began racing through NASCAR’s ranks with a chip on his shoulder. After ending his NASCAR Xfinity Series tenure with 13 wins and three-hundredths of a second shy of becoming a back-to-back champion, all doubts can be put to rest as the 23-year-old takes over the iconic No. 2.
Someone who knows a thing or two about having a successful rookie season is 2009 Rookie of the Year, Joey Logano, who is taking on a doubly hefty mentorship role with the departure of Brad Keselowski from Team Penske. It certainly helps Ryan Blaney is establishing himself as a young leader as well, but they’re inheriting Cindric and Burton as students to their craft.
“I think moving up to the Cup level is more than just driving a different car; it’s the people, the competition, the way business is done – it’s all different,” 2018 Champion, Logano, said. “I’ll try to be the best leader and teammate I can be to try and help.
“I think they all have strengths in their own areas. With Austin (Cindric), his road course capabilities bring a lot to the table. I think he’ll take some time as well, like it would for any other rookie, but it may happen quicker now to the point with the new car.”
Daytona 500 Champion, Michael McDowell, echoed these same sentiments about the difficulties of adapting to the Cup Series when asked about his new teammate. After 14 years racing at the sport’s premier level, he scored his first win in 2021.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” McDowell said. “Even the best rookies that come into the Cup Series struggle. Experience always helps when there’s change, but if you were going to make the jump, now’s the time. It’s minimizing the lows, maximizing the highs and enjoying the journey in the process.”
While Gilliland says his father has been the most helpful and influential in easing his transition to Cup, there have been others along the way. Namely, new crew chief Seth Barbour, who has been incredibly hand-on and proactive during the preseason and his new teammate, McDowell.
Being Gilliland has been with Front Row Motorsports since 2020, he’s worked closely with McDowell in recent years. With COVID-19 protocols loosening up in the later stages of last season, the teammates became more acquainted during Cup-and-Truck doubleheaders.
“I have more of that mentorship role with [Gilliland] than I feel like I’ve had with other rookies in the past,” McDowell said. “I don’t know if it’s because I know his family or I’m as old as his dad, but I definitely want to see him succeed and be successful, because it helps our overall program and they’re a good family.”
As for Burton, he’s leaned on his father for a lot of advice, but it also helps having a Cup champion and fellow generation driver as teammates to lean on.
“Joey (Logano) and Ryan (Blaney) have both been really great tools for me to try and make that transition,” Burton said. “I’ve had a great mixture of Ryan, who came into the series more recently, Joey who’s been around for a while, and me and Austin are learning.”
There’s no telling what to expect from these young drivers with NASCAR’s Next Gen car on the horizon, but there is tons of history between all three already in addition to their racing roots. At the very least, it should make for a highly entertaining battle for Rookie of the Year – potentially one of the best the sport has ever seen.
“I think the biggest thing is we love competition: that’s why we’re here,” Burton said. “Competing in the Cup Series is a pretty big deal especially when you’ve got a rookie class like ours. It’s going to be tough, but it’s exciting. I’m sure there will be some trash talk between us, but it’ll be a good time.”
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