NASCAR: Austin Cindric wins at Gateway after Ryan Blaney's car slows on the final lap

Austin Cindric scored his second Cup Series win in incredibly surprising fashion on Sunday at Gateway.

Cindric took the lead on the last lap after his Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney’s car suddenly slowed as it was apparently out of gas. Blaney looked poised for an easy win after Christopher Bell’s car had an engine issue with less than 20 laps to go.

Cindric has struggled since he won the 2022 Daytona 500. He entered Sunday’s race 20th in the points standings after he finished 24th a season ago with just five top-10 finishes. He hadn’t won in 85 races since he won in his eighth Cup Series start at Daytona two seasons ago.

Blaney cycled through to the lead after pitting with 64 laps to go in the 240-lap race. He pitted with the knowledge that he could make it to the end of the race with a full tank of gas, but his team apparently didn’t get that gas tank completely full. He radioed to his crew as his car sputtered that he was out of gas and coasted to the finish line in 24th place.

The gamble that Blaney’s team took appeared to be a great one. The final pit stop was supposed to ensure that he made it to the end of the race on fuel, but also meant he’d have older tires as the checkered flag got closer.

Bell pitted later than Blaney and Cindric — who was on a similar strategy to his teammate — and quickly ran Blaney down with 30 laps to go. However, he couldn’t get past him after the duo battled. Blaney did a deft job of holding Bell off for multiple laps before Bell’s engine issues and it wasn’t inconceivable that he could have held the lead for the rest of the race had Bell had a fully-working engine.

Instead, neither driver got the win.

Denny Hamlin finished second ahead of Brad Keselowski and Tyler Reddick while Penske’s Joey Logano was fifth. Bell limped home to a seventh-place finish behind Austin Dillon.

The victory is the first of the season for Team Penske after Blaney won the 2023 Cup Series title. No Penske driver entered the race in the top 10 in the points standings as Blaney was 12th and Logano was 17th through the first 14 races of the season. Over those races, the team’s three drivers had just six top-five finishes and nine top 10s.

Sunday’s race began with a large question still looming: Is Kyle Larson eligible to compete for the 2024 Cup Series title?

Larson missed the Coca-Cola 600 a week ago after the rain-delayed Indianapolis 500. Larson flew to Charlotte after the Indy 500 was over but didn’t get into the car after rain ended the Cup Series race 151 laps early.

NASCAR rules stipulate that a driver has to start all 36 races to be eligible for the championship. However, the sanctioning body has been exceptionally liberal when granting waivers for exceptions. Erik Jones received one earlier this year for a back injury. Chase Elliott got one in 2023 after he was suspended for a race for wrecking Denny Hamlin. Kurt Busch got one in 2015 after he was suspended for domestic abuse allegations.

It’s reasonable to assume that Larson will ultimately get a waiver and his decision to stay in Indianapolis and race in the 500 over the 600 was made with the knowledge that the waiver would happen. However, it’s now been a week since he planned to run both races and NASCAR has not announced if Larson is or isn’t getting a waiver.

It’s an odd circumstance that casts an unnecessary shadow over the Cup Series. Both NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports surely knew that weather could wreak havoc with Larson’s plans and this could be an issue. Even if NASCAR was prepared for this scenario, the delay in announcing Larson’s waiver makes NASCAR look unprepared.

On Sunday, Larson ended up finishing 10th after he crashed with Kyle Busch at the end of the second stage. Larson got loose on the inside of Busch in Turn 1 after the two had slammed doors on the frontstretch. The contact caused Busch to hit the wall and ended his day, while Larson was able to escape serious damage and continue.

Despite not starting the 600, Larson retained the regular season points lead after the race. He lost the lead on Sunday to Hamlin, who is now 21 points ahead of the 2021 Cup Series champion.

Additionally, NASCAR's points report showed Larson without any playoff points — a sign that he's currently ineligible for the title. Larson had accrued 17 playoff points through the first 14 races of the season.

1. Austin Cindric

2. Denny Hamlin

3. Brad Keselowski

4. Tyler Reddick

5. Joey Logano

6. Austin Dillon

7. Christopher Bell

8. Carson However

9. Justin Haley

10. Kyle Larson

11. Ty Gibbs

12. Ross Chastain

13. Chase Elliott

14. Chris Buescher

15. William Byron

16. Todd Gilliland

17. Chase Briscoe

18. Daniel Henric

19. Zane Smith

20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

21. Bubba Wallace

22. Noah Gragson

23. Daniel Suarez

24. Ryan Blaney

25. Michael McDowell

26. Erik Jones

27. John Hunter Nemechek

28. Alex Bowman

29. Ryan Preece

30. Derek Kraus

31. Harrison Burton

32. Corey LaJoie

33. Cody Ware

34. Martin Truex Jr.

35. Kyle Busch

36. Josh Berry