Written by Matthew Burroughs Twitter: @MJBurroughs
The 64th Daytona 500 brought much more than just the traditional start of the NASCAR racing season as the sun set on Sunday’s much anticipated Great American Race. With new faces in new places, a seemingly rejuvenated fan base filling the sold-out Daytona International Speedway, and a brand-new construction of car to the Cup series, “change” was the first thought on most people’s minds going into the weekend. Perhaps no better indication of this change was seen as the checkered flag fell to a first-time winner in a brand-new ride as Austin Cindric of Columbus, Ohio took his first Cup series win in the famous Penske 2 car. “A PACKED HOUSE AT THE DAYTONA 500!” Cindric’s first response as he climbed out to celebrate with Fox’s Jamie Little as he saluted the crowd. The 2020 xfinity series champion and top billed rookie for the 2022 Cup campaign might not have been the betting line favorite but with Penske teammate Ryan Blaney was able to stay up front most of the race and survived for the win, perhaps is becoming a symbol of a new guard to the top levels of stock car racing.
The start of the 64th running saw Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman on the front row. Soon into the first stint however, the Ford cars primarily led by Brad Keselowski were showing the most strength as they established the draft on the outside line. Stage 1 moved along smoothly through the first round of green flag pitstops, but the first incident came just after as Kaz Grala’s The Money Team number 50 car lost its left rear wheel just after pitting. This new construction of Cup car also includes new larger alloy wheels with a single lugnut, and this old issue with perhaps a new cause is raising eyebrows almost immediately to 2022’s pit stop possibilities.
Stage 1’s conclusion raised eyebrows even more as Harrison Burton was turned by Brad Keselowski in the bump draft out of turn 2. The bump and spin caused a chain reaction that not only removed contenders like William Byron and 3-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin due to damage but brought the first rollover crash to this new generation of Cup car as Burton’s Wood Bros Ford flipped once down the backstretch. “I don’t know if it was too much, but definitely in the wrong spot,” stated Burton on the concerns of Keselowski’s bump draft after being released from the Care Center. This was the Cup series rookie’s first flip of any kind in a pavement stock car.
As with many races at Daytona or Talladega, the racing soon after a large crash was more organized and less risky as the race pushed through stage 2. Long time veteran and former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. was rising to the occasion as the winner of both stages 1 and 2, seeding hope that the New Jersey driver might finally win the 500 after much frustration.
Among the many concerns both leading to and coming from the Daytona 500 is the reliability of suspension parts on this next generation of vehicle. With around 50 laps to go this concern was brought to the forefront as Tyler Reddick seemingly lost control out of turn 4, spinning into traffic unassisted. The crash not only removed Reddick but also involved Joey Logano and Truex Jr, both receiving damage that would remove them from contention. The timing of the caution yielded everyone to pit for fuel, with just barely enough laps left to make it without needing another stop. In the charge towards the end, Penske’s Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney were establishing their formidability holding station mostly on the lower line of the track working in tandem. Other contenders began making their moves as well as Bubba Wallace with help from the damaged Kyle Busch car could hold and eventually pass the Penske duo. Ricky Stenhouse Jr with assistance from the RFK Fords were also making a bid, and with 11 to go the final shuffles were being organized.
With 11 laps to go a check up of the outside draft line caused reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson to make hard contact with the rear of Kevin Harvick, spinning the SHR veteran in the trioval and causing a wreck that took out several more contenders., including the impressively running Todd Gilliland in his first Cup series race, and Cinderella story Noah Gragson driving for the independent Beard Motorsports team.
After a red flag cleanup the restart with 7 laps to go pitted the Penske Duo of Cindric and Blaney against whoever could organize against their favor. Brad Keselowski driving now for a team he co-owns, again became a drafting catalyst pushing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. aggressively in the closing laps. Coming out of turn 4, with much the same style of pushing seen at the end of stage 1, Stenhouse’s 47 car was sent spinning off the front number of Keselowski’s number 6, causing heavy damage to Stenhouse and Keselowski’s RFK teammate Chris Buescher. “I guess he just tried to wreck everybody in the field until he won” summarized Stenhouse Jr after the race.
In the overtime Green-White-Checkered restart it was same song different verse for Penske as the 2 and 12 were fully established on the low line with Keselowski short on friends but receiving a push from fellow Ford driver Chase Briscoe. In the run to the flag the two Penske cars had nearly enough space to separate, but as 2nd car in line Ryan Blaney attempted to swing wide for a potential slingshot, Cindric swept up the track to block causing Blaney to rub the outside wall. In the split second after Cindric then swept back down the track to fend off the late charging Bubba Wallace, just barely having enough track to stay ahead and take the Daytona 500 victory as others crashed behind from the initial contact. Austin Cindric, in only his 8th Cup Series start and first as a full time Cup driver took victory followed by Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Blaney, and Aric Almirola in the Top 5. “I have absolutely zero regrets…obviously it worked out quite well” stated Cindric in an interview the following morning.
The NASCAR Cup series begins its western swing this week at the campaign moves to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California after a two-year Covid related absence from the schedule. The Auto Club 400 cam be seen on Fox, Sunday February 27th at 3:30 pm est.