Rip the yellow stripe off the bumpers and throw the graduation caps in the air because Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton, and Todd Gilliland are NASCAR Cup Series rookies no more.
It was a long year as they navigated being drivers at NASCAR’s highest level. There was a new car to learn, longer races and much different competition. Being a rookie is hard enough, and it doesn’t help that when other drivers see the yellow stripe they expect you to get out of the way.
Cindric took home Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors over his two friends and rivals, thanks to a Daytona 500 victory and making the playoffs. But all three had their highlights and low moments.
RACER set out to do a rookie report card, but not in the traditional way. Instead, here are Cindric, Burton, and Gilliland’s own assessments of their first year under the bright lights.
How did life change as a Cup Series driver?
Austin Cindric: I don’t have Sundays off; that’s the main thing.
Harrison Burton: The scheduling is a lot tougher. After Sunday, you’re back at the shop Monday. It’s felt longer at times because of that, but also shorter because you never stop going.
Todd Gilliland: It’s like when you’re in high school, and your parents sign you up for sports or something to keep you out of trouble because, in the Cup Series, there is no time to get into trouble. It’s been super fun. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life, and just to be a part of it is really cool. To be racing with the best of the best out here is super fun. I’ve had a great time this year.
The first or most notable purchase made with a Cup Series driver paycheck:
Cindric: I have found it very difficult to buy pants. I have a very specific waist and inseam because I’m tall but not very big. You can get 36-inch inseams, but you usually have to go to Big & Tall to get those and I’m not big around . So, it’s very hard to 32 and 36s or even 32 and 38s, depending on the manufacturer. So, I got some pants tailor-made this year, and I feel like that signifies that I’ve made it.”
Burton: I bought a house. That was cool. It was cool to move out of the apartment and get a house, get furniture, and have a place to call your own and take ownership in it.
Gilliland: I go out to nice dinners. I love food because I’m a big guy to begin with, so that’s been about the same. I got Marissa, my fiancee, a ring. I guess that’s probably the biggest purchase in my life so far.
What is the coolest thing about being a Cup Series driver?
Cindric: There is no higher level than where we’re at; there is nothing more to get. There is nothing bigger than the Cup Series. That’s new for me. I’ve raced in IMSA and that’s the top of sports car racing in North America, but you spend your whole career trying to get to the top level and race against the best guys, and now I’m here. I’m doing that. You got what you asked for, so do something with it.”
Burton: Other than the racing, which has been really good and fun to be a part of, it’s racing guys that my dad raced. I thought that was neat. My dad was teammates with someone like Kevin Harvick, and now I’m racing against him.
Gilliland: The level of communication and having meetings with the driver council, and seeing these guys are just like me. They’re all kids at heart. We all grew up just loving the sport of NASCAR. Some guys have been here longer than others, but we all strap in the race cars and go around in circles and try to beat each other. It’s super-cool to be at this level, but at the same time, it’s not as different as I thought compared to everything else.
What is the most annoying thing about being a Cup Series driver?
Cindric: Oof. I get a tweet every Tuesday about the rookie points.
Touche. Yours truly posts the rookie point standings all season long.
Cindric: I’ve got a better answer, because this is annoying. I’ve been racing long enough for well-educated race fans to know who I am, but your casual race fan might just be hearing my name for the first or second time. When I’m walking around the racetrack and just doing my thing, people who know who I am but don’t know exactly what I look like until I’ve walked away from them and am barely within earshot, they yell at me because they just realized who I am. Or, the people who are in my face that realize who I am and yell at me.
I am right here, stop yelling at me! It’s that shock of realizing, ‘Oh, Cindric. Hi. How are you?’ I appreciate the innocence of it, but I get it at least 30 times on race day. It drives me nuts after a while. It’s not because I expect people to know who I am. It’s because it’s unnecessary shouting.
Burton: There is not a whole lot other than the extra stuff you can let get annoying. There is a lot more on your plate. It’s not really annoying, but if you let it become not fun, it can quickly become annoying.
Gilliland: I don’t feel like there’s anything too annoying. Maybe it’s that I do sim two times a week, but it’s great at the same time. I definitely can’t be too mad about that.
What was the toughest race during the season?
Cindric: My best ‘welcome to the Cup Series’ moment had to be at Phoenix early in the year, somewhere I’ve had a good amount of success and feel pretty confident going to that racetrack. I led practice, made the final round of qualifying and ran 25th out of merit the whole day. I was terrible. I watched guys like Chase Briscoe, whom I felt I had him at a place like Phoenix, win the race. I watched my teammates have a great day, and I sucked. That was a good source of humble pie.”
Burton: I watched the first Martinsville race to prepare for the fall race, and I got to listen to my radio, and I remember how frustrating that one was. I was stuck in the back and made some mistakes, and then all of a sudden, you’re buried a lap down. That felt like a really long race with green flag pit stops. No one was able to pass. That was the first one where I was like, ‘holy cow, I’m ready for this race to be over.’ That’s probably the first I’ve ever felt like that, ever.
Gilliland: Going into the Daytona 500, I was just so nervous. You don’t know what to expect with a 500-mile race. But since that one, the Texas race in the fall, those 500 miles felt so long and it was super-hot. That was pretty physically and mentally exhausting. It was so hard to pass and had so much pit strategy. After that race, I was drained and happy it was over.
What advice did you not get that you wish you had, or the advice you got that was wrong?
Cindric: Something I was told that I don’t think is true is that 2022 is the best year to be a rookie in the Cup Series. I say this, and I’ve had a good year, some would say a great year. I’ve had a very productive season. And Joey and I disagree, because Joey thinks if I had come and driven last year’s car, I would have struggled a lot more than I did this year. Well, I drove last year’s car last year, so I feel like I have a gauge on that. And although the playing field in some sense is level, I am not able to consult my teammates or team or anyone about the right or wrong way to do something because this year, no one knew what it was because we learned at a fast pace and it’s very easy to lead the team in the wrong direction.
There is nowhere to hide in 2022 Cup racing when everyone has the same chassis. If you’re bad, you are bad. I‘ve had to pull from a lot of notebooks and be creative and open-minded, and I wouldn’t say it’s the hardest season to be a rookie, but I think not having any baseline or reference point of how you’re doing or how to get better is really challenging.
Burton: The one thing everyone tells you that as a young guy you never really grasp until the time comes is how hard the Cup Series is. You come out of the Xfinity Series where a bad day is eighth or ninth and then you come to Cup and all of a sudden, eighth and ninth is pretty dang good. That’s a big adjustment to understanding it’s going to be a grind to get where you need to be. You have these races where you’re running 25th or worse, and you know you’re driving so hard, but you’re in the back. Those moments I had heard about, but was not prepared for.
Gilliland: I think one of the coolest and best things we did, and my dad set it up, was meeting with Kevin Harvick before the start of the year. That was cool to start a relationship with one of the veterans of the sport. He said, especially with this new car, it’s going to be a real challenge some weekends, and we’re all going to have some really bad weekends. We’ve seen that all year with guys being good one week and the next they’re in the back. That was really good advice that for how often you race, you have to put the past behind you pretty quickly.
I do wish I knew how grueling the scheduling is because after being in Daytona for a week, you think you can take a breath and be good, but then you go straight to the West Coast and back and forth for three weeks. After that, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this. I was mentally exhausted after those first four weeks.
Was there a Cup Series driver you watched growing up that you wanted to race against and did in 2022?
Cindric: This might be a weird thing to say, but I’ve never watched racing and said, ‘man, I want to race against that guy.’ There is a lot I want to beat. But sharing the track with guys definitely hit me last year with my first couple of Cup races. Being able to try and beat the best, undeniably the best, there is that’s a challenge that I love.
Burton: Just knowing this series is the top level, and everyone is pretty dang good, there isn’t one (I wanted to race). I hit on before about the ones who have been around a long time, and I grew up going to the racetrack seeing my dad try to beat them, and now I’m trying to do that.
Gilliland: The majority of them. Growing up, my dad was the M&M’s car, and then they switched to Kyle Busch, and I always loved the M&M’s car. I watched Kyle win everything growing up. Martin Truex Jr. most recently. It’s really cool. At the beginning of the year, I was almost star-struck, maybe, and I got way more comfortable talking with them and racing them. It’s been cool trying to fit in with everyone.”