DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The odds are stacked against them. Only seven times has a driver posted his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in the Daytona 500. The most recent was Trevor Bayne back in 2011.
Well, among the four open cars that made Sunday’s field, three of them have yet to taste victory in NASCAR’s premiere series. That doesn’t stop all of them though from thinking that they have a chance with this grouping being the feel good stories thus far.
Take David Ragan as an example. He’s won a race before. The 2011 Coke Zero Sugar 400 victor qualified on speed in his No. 36 Ford on Wednesday night. He did so with a team without a large budget in Front Row Motorsports.
Then you get the situation with Ryan Preece and Austin Cindric. For Preece, he came into this new season without a charter. As a result of that, his status past this year was unknown. Hell, his status for most of 2021 was unknown as the team didn’t have enough funding to run all 36 races. If they missed out of the Daytona 500 and all that prize money, well it could decrease his chances of the targeted races even more.
Still, Preece was confident. He felt like he’d have a fast race car in qualifying and not have to worry. Well, as the lights went out before qualifying on Wednesday night, Preece noticed that he had the wrong drivers suit on. He had to hustle back to his bus to change and run back to qualify once we’d be able to finally get started.
He left no doubt in being the top open qualifier among the eight of them. That guaranteed him a spot into the Daytona 500 by virtue of that alone. But, if he still raced his way in during the Duels, then the third fastest open qualifier on Wednesday would then transfer instead on speed.
Cindric, sped on pit road and fell a lap down with 15 laps remaining. His Daytona 500 chances rested on Preece catching Ty Dillon, who was fifth at the time, and beating him to the line. So, Cindric decided to stay with Preece and follow him up. Luckily for Cindric, Preece was aiming for points in the Duels. So, he didn’t fade back and save his car. He raced hard.
Cindric, was there to push Preece to a fifth place finish. Dillon, came home sixth. That allowed Preece to race his way in and not have to fall back on his qualifying speed. In turn, Cindric was in as a result of that.
Now, both are overly confident. Preece has a fast race car. Cindric, is gaining experience. Heading into Speedweeks, he had none in a Cup car. That’s why he sped on pit road you see. The Cup cars have the digital dash and he’s never used it before.
“I’ve never been in traffic,” Cindric said on his experience so far. “Working with a new race car. Not knowing where the tires were going to go, running 60 laps on a set of tires. Only got about six laps of practice. There were a lot of people in that scenario.
“You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s the stressful thing. For us to get to the front early and race hard, shove well, make a difference, I gained a lot of confidence tonight. I feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more knowledgeable about what I have to do on Sunday. At the same time you can’t mess up the easy stuff.”
After 60 laps run, now he’s confident.
“I don’t say this to sound arrogant, but I wasn’t out to lunch,” he said of his first Cup start. “It gives you a little bit of confidence. These guys are the best. When they come to the Xfinity Series, they run up front, usually doesn’t matter what they’re driving. I know that. It’s a rabbit to chase.
“The fact that I was able to be in the game, granted it’s a superspeedway, the challenges are more mental than they are performance, it’s good. It’s a good starting spot for me. I think speedways are a lot different. I think you need to ask me after my first mile-and-a-half, short track, when I get humbled a little bit. Past that, definitely a good place to start.
“I think we’re all right. We obviously showed, our Penske car showed a lot better in the race than in qualifying. So that’s encouraging. That’s where it counts.
“I feel confident. There’s some things I think we need to get a little bit better, definitely seemed to get a little bit freer. Scared myself a few times. Just learning more about this car and what it needs and whether if that’s the right height or aero difference or the motor package difference. There’s definitely some things I want to work on. I know what direction I think I need to go or at least help steer and understand more about for Saturday’s practice session.
“Past that, yeah, I learned a lot. I think we got a fast Verizon Ford 5G Mustang. I think that showed early, we were able to stay up and make a difference. I gained some confidence further up in the pack, whether that be side drafting, how to control the level, giving the pushes. It’s all part of the learning process.”
Cindric said he balanced the emotions of what was at stake last night in his head.
“For me, I prepared for this,” Cindric continued. “I knew this was going to be the scenario. I knew this was going to be the risk, our sponsors knew this was going to be the risk, trying to race our way in.
“The reality is I’m in a fortunate position to know it’s not going to be my first shot as a Daytona 500. Perhaps that gives me a little bit of comfort knowing it’s not the end of the world, not the end of my career if things don’t work out today. But you’re still competitive. You still want to go after it.
“I was up till 1 a.m. looking at SMT, looking at past races, listening to different spotters. I fell asleep at my computer. But, yeah, nerves went away pretty quick. I’m not one to get nervous, especially if I’ve done the prep work.
“After we started going, felt normal. Felt fun. It’s been a while since I’ve raced, since Phoenix, since I’ve raced. It’s good to get back after it.”
Now both he and good friend Chase Briscoe will make their first Cup starts together on Sunday.
Same thing happened in the second Duel. Kaz Grala.
On the Lap 35 crash, two of those four drivers that were collected were Grala and Garrett Smithley. It all happened when Chase Briscoe lost his No. 14 Ford at the exit of Turn 2. Fellow rookie Anthony Alfredo spun while trying to avoid him and Grala, Smithley and BJ McLeod had no where to go.
Grala, suffered heavy damage and thought his chances of making the Daytona 500 were done.
Luckily for him, he got lucky with that crash on the 56th lap as Smithley hooked Brad Keselowski and sparked a five car crash. Gragson, was collected too and saw his night end. Smithley, had damage and fell a lap down.
It left the final overtime restart for that final spot between David Ragan and Grala. That allowed Ragan to race his way in and not have to fall back on his time. Similar situation to the first Duel to where Ryan Preece did the same. That put Austin Cindric in.
Cindric and Grala were the third and fourth fastest cars in qualifying among open cars and now they’ll make it in the field as the final two qualifiers.