Austin Cindric has never driven a NASCAR Cup Series car before. In fact, he’s never been behind the wheel of one at all. But, next Wednesday afternoon, he will have just 50 minutes to get acclimated to one because he’s one of eight drivers having to race their ways into the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 next Sunday.
“You’ve got 50 minutes to figure out how to get into the Daytona 500,” Cindric said on his Daytona 500 media availability. “That’s not easy. That will be my first time in a Cup car, my first time in a speedway Cup car – a lot of different things going on and obviously a lot of things to go through. Even simple procedural things like trying to get used to the digital dash on pit road speeds and doing hot pit roads and, obviously, figuring out how the cars work in the draft. There are a lot of things I’m going to have to figure out in 50 minutes, so it’ll be information overload.
“I’ve got great teammates that will be able to help me through some of that process. I’ve done a lot of prep work so far to try to nail down the small details, but nothing is simple as, like I said, pit road speed or procedural things inside the car what keeps us out of the race. I’ve tried to be as diligent as possible on those things, but it’s the things you can’t control that make you lose a little bit of sleep thinking about it.
“The easiest way to make it in is on time, and our guys at Team Penske are trying to give me the fastest Verizon Ford Mustang possible to do that, so I’m excited. It’s going be a great challenge, and I think everybody in this position is embracing that task because there are a lot of great cars trying to go for a spot.”
The 44 cars entered for 40 spots this year is the most since 2016. There were actually 50 cars entered for the 2015 race which is the most since 2011 overall.
Over the last 11 years at that, we’ve had 44 entries so far this year, 43 in 2020, 42 in 2019, 40 in 2018, 42 in 2017, 44 in 2016, 50 in 2015, 49 in 2014, 45 in 2013, 49 in 2012 and 48 in 2011. There were 54 cars entered for the 2010 race.
Now, Cindric is hoping to beat at least six other open cars next week to put his name among the 40 in this year’s field.
“I started thinking about all the scenarios, and you start feeling a little anxious and nervous,” Cindric said at the end of January. “Even when this was coming together, just knowing the format and knowing how many open cars there are this year, it’s gonna be a challenge.”
It all starts on Wednesday though as he has one lone practice session, then qualifying later in the day to make the show. See, the top two open cars on Wednesday night know that they’ll make the race on speed. They can still race their ways in during Thursday night’s Duels too, but they know that they have their speed to fall back on too.
That excites Cindric in knowing that he has a Team Penske car at his disposal and knows that the speed department for this camp will certainly help.
“I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t have as good a shot as any to qualify our way in on speed, but you can’t count on that,” Cindric continued. “I’ve put a lot of prep work already into understanding the Duels and understanding the format. They take one car out of each Duel, so that’s a very small window. That’s where all my (Daytona 500) focus is right now.”
Joining Cindric on the open list are names like Ryan Preece, Ty Dillon, Kaz Grala and Noah Gragson.
Preece, is in a full time entry that lost their charter this past offseason. They don’t have enough races sold to compete on a full season but are going to make the attempt anyways. Missing out of the Daytona 500 would be devastating for their full season aspirations.
Luckily, his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the pole a year ago, so the speed could be made available in his No. 37 Chevrolet to get in.
But, does this bring more pressure?
“I’m not stressed at all,” Preece said. “We’re going to go down, and if everything works out the way I think it’s laid out, we should qualify on speed. So, I feel pretty confident with it.”
Gragson, like Cindric, is also making his Cup debut in Daytona too. He’s doing so with a team that features heavy hearts. Beard Motorsports lost its President, Mark Beard Sr. as the patriarch of the organization lost his life earlier this week. What a story it would be for them to make the race as one of the open cars next Thursday night.
He said he’s most nervous about the Duels on Thursday night and has been watching videos of Denny Hamlin to prepare. He’s singled out last year’s Duels for Hamlin to watch his onboard in preparation for this year’s for himself.
The open cars have plenty of storylines which will make the Duels fun to watch again. It’s going to be a pressure packed situation for these eight drivers.