DAYTONA BEACH — Moments after winning Sunday’s Daytona 500 by half a car length in one of its closest finishes ever, Austin Cindric sat on the hood of his No. 2 Ford.
He wanted to take a moment to collect his thoughts after becoming the first NASCAR Cup Series rookie to win the Great American Race, but there was more to it than that. He was stuck.
“I broke the car,” Cindric said.
The 23-year-old blew out the right rear tire and busted the starter in his Team Penske machine during his celebratory burnout. His crew had to come fix it at the finish line before he could cruise into Victory Lane at sold-out Daytona International Speedway.
Chalk it up to the inexperience of running (and winning) in NASCAR’s top series.
There were other rookie mistakes, too. Cindric inadvertently spun out Chase Briscoe midway through the first stage. In a postrace news conference, he caught himself calling the racing machines “NASCARs” — a product of his time racing across disciplines on his way up the sport’s ladder. He promises to start calling them “Cup cars” instead.
Aside from that? Cindric handled NASCAR’s new Next Gen cars and a talented 40-car field like a seasoned professional.
“He didn’t make a mistake today,” team owner Roger Penske said.
Cindric clearly succeeded in the most important part of racing at the famed 2½-mile tri-oval: He kept his car in one piece long enough to be in contention late.
He didn’t get caught up in the first big wreck, which sent fellow rookie Harrison Burton’s car upside down near the end of the first stage. Cindric also avoided both of the inevitable wrecks that slowed down the final 10 laps. Those saves allowed him to have his Ford in front at the green-white-checkered overtime finish.
Of the cars at the front late, Cindric’s was the most unlikely. Bubba Wallace — arguably the face of NASCAR due to his activism and flashes of success — was the 500 runnerup in 2018. Brad Keselowski won the 2012 Cup championship and was one of the series’ top superspeedway racers when he drove the No. 2 Ford that Cindric now pilots. Cindric’s teammate, Ryan Blaney, won at Daytona in the July race.
Blaney deserves credit for an assist Sunday, both for the way he pushed Cindric as a drafting partner and what happened on the final lap. Blaney was calculated in how he tried to make a late move past Cindric for the win. That’s notable, considering the way Keselowski and his then-Penske teammate Joey Logano wrecked on the 500′s final lap a year ago, allowing Michael McDowell to fly from third to first for the victory.
Blaney didn’t win, but he didn’t keep Cindric from losing. That gave Cindric the chance to do the hardest part of becoming a Daytona 500 champion.
“Just hold off the wolves,” Cindric said. “It’s the race that means everything to everybody.”
Wallace has flown to stardom since he cried after his fantastic run at Daytona four years ago. He became a national name through the Black Lives Matter movement and his prominent role as the lone Black driver in a series with deep Southern roots. A win would’ve catapulted him into superstardom.
Wallace thought it was going to happen. His 23XI Racing Toyota was strong all day and charged on the inside lane heading to the checkered flag, as Blaney wiggled outside. Wallace banged against Cindric but came up 0.036 seconds short.
“What could have been, right?” said Wallace, whose race team is co-owned by three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and basketball great Michael Jordan.
Though NASCAR would have gotten a boost with a Wallace triumph, Cindric is a worthy champion with a great racing pedigree.
His grandfather Jim Trueman was an IndyCar owner and won the Indianapolis 500 with Bobby Rahal in 1986. His father, Tim, is the president at Team Penske and heavily involved in its IndyCar success.
Though his family ties surely helped him navigate the business, Cindric earned the opportunity he seized Sunday. He starred across series on his rise to the top. He won NASCAR’s Xfinity Series in 2020 and came within a few inches of winning the championship last year, too. Cindric said that loss haunted him “every moment of every day” since then.
Not anymore. Not after Sunday.
Instead, he can spend his moments of free time in better ways — such as learning the proper way to celebrate a victory.
If Sunday was any indication, there are plenty more coming his way.