Defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric would be lying if he said qualifying for his first Cup race in next month’s Daytona 500 was not a daunting task.
Sure, the 22-year-old is coming off of a confidence-boosting season of six wins and 19 top-five finishes, which culminated his first tour title.
But the field is stacked for the Great American Race, and without a charter, Cindric will have to qualify the No. 33 Verizon Ford just to make the show.
“I started thinking about it and start thinking about all the scenarios, and you start feeling a little anxious and nervous,” Cindric said. “Even when this was coming together, just knowing the format and knowing how many open cars there are this year, it’s going to be a challenge. 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.
“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 focus is right now.”
Cindric may have to "out-duel’ as many as four other drivers for the spot available in his qualifying race. Fellow Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson is also attempting his first Cup start in the No. 62 Chevrolet owned by Beard Racing. Other unchartered teams with drivers on the outside looking in include former Daytona summer race winner David Ragan, as well as Ty Dillon, Ryan Preece, Timmy Hill and Kaz Grala.
In six NXS starts on the 2.5-mile track, Cindric has posted two top-five and three top-10 finishes with a top result of fourth. Despite Cindric’s talent—and having the strength of Team Penske behind him—the struggle is real.
“I think it’s a bonus if we get into the race, and I think everyone understands that,” Cindric said. “I think everyone respects that, including our sponsors, so we’ll go forward and try to put our best effort in.
“It’s going to happen really fast, though. Looking at the weekend schedule on Wednesday I have to figure out how to drive a Cup car and how to qualify in the Daytona 500 in a day, so it won’t be easy but I’m looking forward to it.”
Race engineer Miles Stanley will oversee Cindric’s development in the No. 33 Ford this season as the driver prepares to graduate to Cup full-time with the Wood Brothers in 2022. Stanley is in his eighth season with Team Penske and worked under the guidance of crew chief Todd Gordon. He was part of the No. 22 team when Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500.
“Ever since I joined Team Penske in 2013, I’ve been able to grow as an engineer and learn from some of the best in the business,” said Stanley. “Now I get the chance to become a Cup Series crew chief with one of the formidable organizations in the sport, which is an amazing opportunity.
“To get to do it with Austin at Daytona International Speedway is a perfect recipe for success. I look forward to working with him and hitting the ground running with the No. 33 Ford team in Daytona and the other Cup Series races that Austin runs in 2021.”
While the possibility of racing in the prestigious Daytona 500 is part of the bonus plan for Cindric, his first priority remains defending his Xfinity title.
“Obviously, my main focus is having more success in the Xfinity Series, trying to go for another championship,” Cindric said. “As far as what my goals are for the year and how do I achieve that, I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is, because everyone else around you is going to keep stepping that up. So I’ve worked very hard this offseason, whether that’s physically or trying to get myself organized.
“I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because, ultimately, that’s what I want to be one day is to race against the best and the best of the best. So, it’s a unique opportunity for me to kind of have the scope of what the long-term plan looks like and apply that to the short term and take what I learn from my Cup races this year and apply them to the Xfinity races.
“I think Saturdays had some really great shows last year, and I think there’s more cars in the field this year than last that are capable of winning races, so another reason to continually step up your game. I’m excited for that challenge, as always, and looking forward to the year getting started. It feels nice. I’m ready to get going.”