DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Last year, Team Penske had the top two cars coming to the checkered flag in the 63th annual Daytona 500. This year, they weren’t about to do in the 64th what they did in the 63rd.
Austin Cindric used the low line to hold off Ryan Blaney all the way around the final 5 miles around the Daytona International Speedway to win the Great American Race under the lights at the World Center of Racing.
“Oh, my God—do you know what makes this even better? A packed house,” Cindric exulted after climbing from his car. “A packed house at the Daytona 500. “Oh, my God, I’ve got so many people to thank. First and foremost, Roger Penske. Happy Birthday!
“Everyone has worked so hard on this Next Gen car and through the whole process. I am so excited. This makes up for losing a championship in the last race I was in (2021 Xfinity Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway).
“I’m surrounded by great people, that’s all there is to it. I know there’s going to be highs and lows, being a rookie. I’m just grateful for the opportunity and excited to climb the mountain ahead of us on the No. 2 team. We’re in the Playoffs—that’s one box checked. My gosh, what an awesome group of fans; what an awesome race car. I’m just really thankful.”
Cindric, becomes just the ninth driver in the 64 years of the race to earn his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in the annual season opening race.
Cindric, inherited the lead from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. when Stenhouse as the leader was caught up in a crash on Lap 194 with the two RFK Racing cars. That handed the lead Cindric who was making his second career start in this race.
We’d end up in overtime in which Cindric and Blaney restarted on the front row. Blaney, got off to a slower start which allowed Cindric to go from the high lane to the bottom in front of his teammate to get some drafting help.
It was Cindric and Blaney low with Keselowski and Briscoe high. It was the same three from Thursday night’s final lap of the Duels where Keselowski held off Blaney and Cindric for the victory.
“Everyone started lifting,” Cindric said. “Everyone was trying to get their runs, and I was probably 20 percent throttle for most of the last lap, just trying to stay relatively close to where I could at least defend something or be able to be close enough to be able to get to the tri-oval.
“I knew if I got to the tri-oval and I was nose ahead, I would get it. I actually learned that Thursday night. But for me, yeah, just holding off the wolves, it’s the race that means everything to everybody. Once you come off of (Turn) 4, all gloves are off and everybody wants it.”
This time, Cindric hugged the yellow line for two laps all the way around here forcing Blaney to have to run through him or go high to beat him.
“Well, I think it was really the strategy that was called by Jeremy, putting Austin up on top and then him coming down over ahead of Ryan,” Penske said. “We had talked all for weeks after last year when we were one-two and ended up in the fence, I guess you’d have to say, and they played ball, and Austin won.
“But the cars were good. I think for Ford, for us and the whole Ford group, worked really well together. We’ve worked hard as teams to try to develop a plan, and I think it paid off.
“If you looked at Austin this week and the way he ran, he didn’t make a mistake today. He was up second, third, almost the entire race, and then at the end to be able to pull it off, which shows you the quality of kid he is and also the experience that he already has as a young man. We’re very excited about the win.”
Blaney never flinched despite a strong push from Bubba Wallace from behind. Cindric was that good to hold his line and hold off Wallace by .036-seconds making it the third closest Daytona 500 finish ever.
Blaney, crashed coming to the line in fact and would finish fourth in a damaged No. 12 Ford while Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola rounded out the top five in finishing third and fifth respectively.
Hendrick Motorsports Does It Again
I wrote in each of the last two years on if Hendrick Motorsports could finally turn those starting spots into some Daytona 500 success. Unfortunately, they didn’t.
William Byron and Alex Bowman were collected in the Lap 62 crash on the backstretch. Byron, would finish 38th while Bowman limped home 24th, four laps down.
Then, both Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were each part of that Lap 190 crash with Larson finishing 32nd and Elliott continuing on to 10th.
The thing is, Hendrick Motorsports has seen this script before. On Wednesday night, they dominated on qualifying day for the upcoming Daytona 500….again
It was the eighth time HMS has swept the front row for the annual season opening race, three of which occurring in the last four years now and half of them occurring since 2017.
They’ve truly been a force early on during the annual February trip to the World Center of Speed. Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well to go along with seven poles in the last eight years.
The thing is, they’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame either. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove his No. 88 Chevrolet into victory lane following a lengthy rain delay that 2014 night, never in a million years did I not expect HMS to be back over the next seven years.
The finishing positions of the HMS pole winners since this streak began in 2015?
33rd, 37th, 14th, 17th, 21st, 35th and 32nd respectively. The second place starters when they’ve started there?
5th, 37th, 11th, 24th, 26th and 24th respectively.
Joe Gibbs Racing Has Rough Go Of It Sunday
Joe Gibbs Racing was similar to Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday too. Three of their four car fleet was collected in that Lap 62 crash too. It ended the day for Denny Hamlin for his first DNF of his career in the Daytona 500. Christopher Bell had damage, met minimum speed, then went behind the wall for repairs only to come out several laps down.
Hamlin would finish 37th and Bell 34th.
Kyle Busch had some damage too but continued on. Despite leading 28 early laps, Busch finished sixth in his No. 18 Toyota. He still only has one top five here in the big race since 2017 and four in his 17 winless tries.
Martin Truex Jr. swept both stages and led three different times for 11 laps but was caught up in that Lap 150 crash and would settle for 13th.
Stewart-Haas Racing Does What They Have To Do, Puts 2 Cars In Top 5
Stewart-Haas Racing has just one Daytona 500 triumph. In most years, they were always getting collected in one of the many crashes. So, the last three now, they’ve elected to just run together in the back to forego stage points to trade them for a potential win later.
Kevin Harvick had a pair of top five finishes in each of his last two starts coming into Sunday’s race. He was there at the end of this year’s before being caught up in that Lap 190 crash when Kyle Larson pushed him too hard in the tri-oval.
Cole Custer was dealing with early fuel problems himself while Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola came away with top five’s.
Briscoe was caught up in the first caution when Kaz Grala lost a tire and Cindric got into the back of Briscoe when he slowed to miss it. He’d finish 23rd and 21st in the two stages but rebounded to come away in third at the end.
Almirola, was quiet all day with being 21st and 16th in the two stages but finished fifth in his potential final Daytona 500 start.
Ford’s Dominate Speedweeks
We should have known when the Ford camp went 1-2-3-4-5 in the opening practice and then 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 in the second one, that this would be their race to lose. While Chevy’s flexed their muscles in qualifying on Wednesday, Ford’s went 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3 in the two Duels on Thursday. In practice on Friday, they were 1-2-3-4-5-6 again before being 1-2-3-4-5 in Saturday’s final practice.
So in the race, it’s not shocking that they put 7 cars in the top nine finishing spots including a Daytona 500 triumph.
Same Guys Asking If They’re Ever Going To Win Next Year Too
We came into Speedweeks asking when Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. were ever going to win at Daytona 500. I mean, there’s a lot of successful drivers in this sport that never did.
Even the greats take years to accomplish a win in the Great American Race while some never do it. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32. Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd each 0-for-29. Bobby Labonte was 0-for-24. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Tony Stewart (0-for-17), Carl Edwards (0-for-12) and Ned Jarrett (0-for-7) never won either.
Now, after a second straight year of a first time winner in this race and fourth in a six year span, the same grouping will get asked that question again during next year’s Speedweeks.
Elliott, has won last four Most Popular Driver awards to go along with a 2020 championship and second straight Championship 4 appearance last November in Phoenix.
In seven Daytona 500 starts in this race he has finishes of 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th, 17th, 2nd and 10th respectively.
Larson and Truex are the same on superspeedway’s. Larson is now 0-for-30 in career top five’s on superspeedway’s and has just a total of 31 laps on them.
Truex, is 0-for-18. He only has five career top five finishes in 68 points paying superspeedway starts. 5 of his last 7 Daytona finishes have been 22nd or worse.
Busch, is 0-for-17 now. He’s finished 33rd or worse in three of his last five Daytona points paying starts. He’s also only had one top five here since 2017 too and only three of his 17 starts in the Great American Race being in the top five.
While leading on Lap 180 in 2020’s edition, his car started having problems. A lap later, Busch said his engine blew and would slowly ride around the track. That was partially a blessing in disguise as he avoided the Lap 183 “Big One” two laps later.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said that year.
He was sixth on Sunday and has now led the most laps (324) of all drivers who’ve never won the ‘500.
12 of his 17 Daytona 500 starts have seen him finish 14th or worse.
For Keselowski, he’s 0-for-13. What’s strange about that is, Keselowski is known as one of the better superspeedway racers in the series. His seven wins on them rank him first among all active drivers right now. If things go his way and he avoids the “big ones” and can be there in the end, he most certainly would be pushing double digits in the win column. But, he’s still winless in the biggest race of the year.
Vastly Better Race
No one knew what to expect out of this brand new Next Gen race car during Speedweeks. How would it draft? How would the racing look?
Well, we didn’t truly know until Sunday. Due to a parts shortage and low inventory of cars available, the 150-mile qualifying races as well as all four practice sessions were tame in nature. No one could take any unnecessary risks.
Some organizations brought no backup cars. Some one had one. Some didn’t even have a backup car while others’ were their Fontana car.
Would this Sundays Daytona 500 look like the 2013 one then?
This was really the first true test. At the end of it, I’d say it passed with flying colors.
The third closest Daytona 500 finish (.036 seconds), the second most lead changes (35) since 2012 and an all around thrilling race from start to finish.
This was never close to 2013. This one featured plenty of passing.
You got pack racing, pit strategy and everything in between which to me is a successful debut for a new car era.
Twice in as many days we saw cars launch airborne on the backstretch. On Saturday, it was Myatt Snider who flipped into the fence on the final lap of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race. The frightening incident broke the fence but luckily Snider was able to walk away with nothing but a foot injury. He was limping but seemed otherwise fine.
Then on Sunday, the 62nd lap saw a big one in which Harrison Burton got airborne and landed on the top of his car before flipping back over on all four wheels. He too escaped injury but it was a reminder that there’s got to be a way to keep these cars grounded.
There’s no way that car should have raised then and with the speeds almost 10 mph slower with this new car, it goes to show that more work needs to be done.
Lost Tires Tied To Tires Being Confiscated
The first two cautions of the day came for cars that lost right side tires. On Lap 40, Kaz Grala’s No. 50 Chevrolet lost his right rear tire on track. Chase Briscoe slowed not to hit it but Austin Cindric didn’t slow down in enough time from behind and spun Briscoe bringing out the first caution of the day.
The second caution came 10 laps later when Justin Haley lost his right front tire on his No. 31 Chevrolet entering Turn 1.
Both were initially tied to tire changers going too fast. See, this new car has a single lug system. No longer do they have to hit five lugs per each tire. It’s just one now. So having these issues was an initial cause for concern. How is this happening with one lug.
Penske says though that the reason for these quite possibly was due to the tires themselves. That’s why they altered the ones they originally had. They noticed an issue and altered NASCAR. It wasn’t intention manipulation for gain. Still, NASCAR confiscated them with a decision likely coming this week.
“Anybody who was at the race today, you talk to most of the teams, they all had trouble with wheels, didn’t they?” team owner Roger Penske said. “It wasn’t something that was unique.
“And I think that we had contacted NASCAR a week before and said that the wheels we were getting were not all the same, and we felt we needed to modify the holes where the drive pins go. We didn’t really get any feedback, and at that point, we went ahead and opened the holes up.”
Now, we’ll see if what they confiscated had a correlation with todays problems.
Teammates Lined Up Was Safer Ending
Ryan Blaney was a team player at the end of Sundays Daytona 500. He could have pushed the issue for his first Great American Race triumph.
He had drafting help from best friend Bubba Wallace behind. He could have made a bold maneuver to hang his teammate Austin Cindric out to dry.
“The last lap, I got good pushes on the bottom from the 23 (Bubba Wallace) and then I was able to get Austin in front and off of four where we were good enough to make a move.”
Or, he could have fought him on the restart. He saw how last year ended on his couch. He hated to be wrecked on Lap 13. After a lengthy rain delay, he was home in time to see the end.
Cindric, had a front row seat. He was involved in that fiery crash.
So, Blaney got rolling slower than normal and let Cindric low in front of him. That ensured a Penske win and not seeing both loaded on the tow truck damaged instead.
Cindric hung onto the low line and Blaney followed in his tire tracks. No one could build enough energy on the high line.
“I got blocked and I ended up getting fenced,” Blaney explained. “I’m happy for Roger Penske, winning the 500 on his birthday. I’m happy for Jeremy Bullins and everyone that works on that 2 car. It’s just one of those things. It didn’t work out. We still ended up fourth, but I don’t know another perfect position we could have put ourselves in to win the race. It just didn’t work out.
“I made the decision of I wasn’t gonna make a move until I was 100 percent sure that one of our two cars was gonna win, and one of our two cars were going to win and one of them ended up winning. I was committed to him until I was 100 percent sure that one of us was gonna win and one of us did,” said Blaney.
Penske wins. The field loses. It worked according to plan. It also saved a scary wreck in the end by an act of desperation.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you to Ryan,” said Cindrics crew chief Jeremy Bullins. “That’s a hell of a teammate. I’ve been here with him and felt like we were going to win with him, and I can’t thank him enough for being that good of a teammate because we probably don’t win that race without him.
“I thought, green-white-checkered, we’re just going to race for it and see what happens here. It was Ryan’s idea. Like I said, hell of a teammate. I mean, the guy is awesome. Then to know you’ve got somebody back there that you can trust pushing you … he kept us out front, no doubt.”
Keselowski Didn’t Make Any Friends
2 of the crashes were a byproduct of Brad Keselowski’s front bumper. He pushed Harrison Burton in the wrong part of his car on Lap 62 and then Ricky Stenhouse Jr too hard coming out of Turn 4.
“I was just pushing and it just turned sideways and spun immediately out. I don’t know what happened there. It was a shame to see it. I hate it for him. I was trying to help him win the stage and certainly didn’t want to see him spin out.”
(And with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?) “The same thing. I was just pushing. We weren’t even all the way up to speed, so I feel like it was a crazy time to be pushing, but obviously the results say different. Whenever somebody spins out obviously there’s somebody over aggressive, but in the moment I didn’t (feel aggressive). (On seeing his former car win) “I’m happy for them. There’s a great group of people over there and they deserve all their success.”
In wake of those incidents, I have to wonder if he was pushing too hard in those situations knowing that this was his best shot of a win with this team.
See, with Penske, he knew he had a shot to win any week anywhere. With RFK, was this the shot?
All three races this weekend saw someone sweep both stages. Neither of the three drivers won.
John Hunter Nemechek did in Fridays NextEra Energy 250 but was caught up in that crash coming to the white flag. He’d finish 24th.
Daniel Hemric did the same in Saturdays Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300. He crashed on the white flag lap and finished…28th.
Truex today was 13th.