NASCAR rookie Austin Cindric wins Daytona 500

Published 8:39 pm Sunday, February 20, 2022

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Roger Penske had one rule at the Daytona 500 for his drivers: Do Not Wreck Each Other.

His orders were followed Sunday night when Austin Cindric worked with teammate Ryan Blaney over the closing laps to win the Daytona 500 as a celebration of Penske’s 85th birthday.

It was just one year ago that Penske drivers Cindric, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski all crashed while racing for the win on the final lap at Daytona International Speedway. It took time for tempers to thaw as Penske made his expectations clear to his drivers.

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“We had talked for weeks after last year, when we were one-two and ended up in the fence,” Penske said. “I said, ‘Look, the best man wins at the end. I think we’ve got to work together.’

“They played ball, and Austin won.”

Cindric was the leader at the start of the two-lap overtime shootout with Blaney beside him. He was driving the No. 2 Ford, the flagship car at Team Penske that was vacated at the end of last season when Keselowski left the organization, and now Keselowski was behind him determined not to get beaten by his replacement.

But Cindric switched lanes as soon as he’d cleared Blaney to drop in front of his teammate so the duo could hook together for two final trips around the track. Blaney made one desperate attempt up high to get around Cindric, but Cindric threw a huge block that forced Blaney into the outside wall.

Bubba Wallace then surged even with Cindric in the bottom lane, forcing Cindric to forget about Blaney behind him and focus on beating Wallace to the finish line.

“Oh, my God. I’ve got so many people to thank,” a stunned Cindric said after climbing from his car and saluting the capacity crowd of some 120,000 spectators. “First and foremost Roger Penske, happy birthday!”

Then Cindric remembered Blaney, who gave him a winning push but finished fourth.

“Appreciate Ryan being a great teammate,” Cindric said. “Obviously, he wants to win this one.”

Blaney was clear on the Penske expectations — “I wanted to try to win the race for Roger Penske. Whether that was me or another car, that’s what I was doing,” — and didn’t have much to say after the race about Cindric’s block.

“I don’t know. Congrats to him, I guess,” Blaney said. “You’ve got to throw a block in that situation.”

It was the first career Cup victory for the 23-year-old Cindric, who was promoted from the Xfinity Series to replace Keselowski and run for NASCAR’s rookie of the year honors.

The win was the third Daytona 500 victory for Penske, who also picked up the trophy in 2008 with Ryan Newman and 2015 with Logano. Ford Motor Co. has won the Daytona 500 17 times, including two in a row.

Wallace finished second for the second time in his career in the Daytona 500.

“What could have been, right?” Wallace said. “Just dejected.”

A trio of Ford drivers rounded out the top five with Chase Briscoe third, followed by Blaney and Aric Almirola.

Kyle Busch was sixth to join Wallace as the only Toyota drivers in the top 10. Michael McDowell was seventh, followed by David Ragan and Keselowski, and finally Chase Elliott in the only Chevrolet to finish inside the top 10.

Cindric, meanwhile, gave his family another one of the crown jewel trophies in motorsports. He’s the son of Tim Cindric, the president of Penske’s racing organization, and the maternal grandson of the late Jim Trueman, who fielded Bobby Rahal’s winning car in the 1986 Indianapolis 500. Trueman died of cancer 10 days after the win at age 51.

Tim Cindric watched the finish from a suite high above the speedway alongside Penske and other team executives. Penske said his longtime executive finally showed some emotion during overtime.

“I always kid him, I say, ‘You’ve got to be a little more excited.’ Well, he was excited today, really,” Penske said. “He even got out of his cool, calm way. I think he said, ‘I’m going to really celebrate; my boy won the Daytona 500.’”

During the victory lane celebration, the father said his son’s victory was still sinking in.

“We’ve had the chance in our family to experience nine Indy 500s, and a lot of other things,” Tim Cindric said. “But, obviously, nothing tops when your kids accomplish their goals. To me, that’s the biggest thing, watching your kid accomplish their goal along with all these people that believed in him.”

Cindric is considered the first rookie to win the Daytona 500, although Trevor Bayne won in 2011 but was not eligible to run for rookie of the year in the Cup Series. Cindric made his Daytona 500 debut in last year’s race, which was decided by a last-lap collision that collected Cindric and his Penske teammates. All the Penske cars ended last year’s race in a ball of fire.

“I just wanted one of them to win. When they were coming to the line, I was afraid we were going to end up like last year,” Tim Cindric said. “I just wanted one of our guys to bring it home.”