Ready to rumble! Cindric to fight the field for Trucks title

By: DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer

Updated:
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Austin Cindric returned to his hauler and found a scrum of drivers more ready to rumble than make small talk about championship weekend.

Cindric is racing for a NASCAR Truck Series championship - and, perhaps, racing just to finish the race. His aggressive driving last weekend at Phoenix ticked off enough drivers that he is facing threats of revenge.

Cindric, Christopher Bell, two-time champion Matt Crafton and defending series champion Johnny Sauter are in the winner-take-all championship race Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway that could go down with a demolition derby ending. Cindric insisted he's not worried about possible retaliation.

"I think the racing always has to be clean and fair," he said. "It's nothing I can speculate on. I've got do my best job and execute for a shot at the championship."

Cindric earned the final spot in the championship field after a battle with Ben Rhodes at Phoenix. Rhodes also had been in contention, and the two vied for position on a late restart. The two trucks made contact and it led to a race-ending spin and wreck for Rhodes. Cindric went low on the restart to gain momentum for a potential pass and Rhodes briefly dipped down in an apparent attempt to block him.

"The way I handled it probably wasn't the cleanest. But you've got move on from something like that," he said.

Rhodes called it a "desperation" move by Cindric and said he was driving "over his head."

Rhodes' crew chief felt Cindric used a dirty move to collect his spot at Homestead. Eddie Troconis also warned that Cindric will have a rough race ahead of him in the championship. Sure enough, other drivers called on Rhodes to retaliate. Cindric said he reached out to Rhodes this week, but the call went straight to voicemail and they have not spoken.

"I just made sure, hey, there was no intent for anything to happen," Cindric said. "It was just a racing deal. I think he understood it watching his post-race interview. I'd love to catch up with him this weekend."

Rhodes and Cindric were buddies as they came up together in various racing series. They even sat next to each other in pre-race drivers' meetings - Cindric called Rhodes his "go-to person" on the seating chart - and expected nothing but a hard, fair fight to the finish.

Cindric could send Brad Keselowski out a winner as his Truck team folds at the end of the season. Keselowski has fielded entries in the series since 2008, including rides for Cindric and Chase Briscoe this season.

Keselowski has a team shop in Statesville, North Carolina, that he hoped could be used down the road for a potential Cup series team.

"To be able to win the championship for BKR in their final race, final shot at the championship, it would be huge," he said. "There would be a pretty big party in Statesville."

Cindric has just one win in the No. 19 Ford and is considered a long shot to topple Bell and Sauter. Bell led the Truck Series in wins (seven), top five-finishes (14) and laps led (865). Sauter had a career-high four wins and tallied 12 top fives and 18 top 10s. Crafton, the first back-to-back trucks champion, has one win this season.

"Whenever you come to Homestead, the only people that you care about are the guys you're racing for the championship," Bell said.

Cindric is racing for one of his race heroes.

Cindric, whose father is an executive for Team Penske, wears a black wristband with the faded lettering of "remember" he got at the memorial service for Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He hasn't taken it off since Wheldon died in a race in 2011.

"He was someone I grew up around idolizing," he said. "Growing up around IndyCar racing, to see something like that happen at my age was pretty impactful. I haven't taken it off since then."

The 19-year-old Cindric had one that read "Lionheart" for Wheldon's nickname but it broke.

He has one more keepsake he'd love to bring back from Homestead.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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