NASCAR Cup Series
NASCAR Cup Series

2022 Daytona 500: Austin Cindric proves his worth with victory

Updated Feb. 21, 2022 4:09 p.m. EST

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was four years ago when Austin Cindric made it only 10 laps in his first Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

He spun in front of the entire field, ending his day.

"You probably couldn’t have picked me up from the care center and say, ‘You’re going to win the Daytona 500 one day,’" the 23-year-old Cindric said in a beer-soaked uniform following a celebration Sunday. "I probably would have said, ‘bulls---.’ 

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"I’ve come a long way since then."

The kid whose initial struggles only amplified the noise that he had earned his ride through nepotism — his father is president of Team Penske — can now call himself not just a NASCAR Cup Series winner but also a Daytona 500 champion.

The rookie’s victory, outdueling Bubba Wallace in an overtime finish, solidified his place in the sport. 

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Rookie Austin Cindric spoke to Jaime Little after winning the Daytona 500. He thanked his team and the fans for cheering him on the entire way and said he looks forward to making the playoffs.

Cindric won an Xfinity Series championship in 2020 and saw a potential back-to-back triumph slip through his hands in the final turn of the 2021 Xfinity season, so people knew he was good. But great? And capable of coming in and replacing Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion and 35-time winner who left Penske to co-own and drive for the new Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing?

The doubt, at least from the outside, was there. Cindric managed one top-10 in seven Cup starts last year. No way would he match what Keselowski could do.

But if he keeps racing like he did Sunday, he could match Keselowski’s numbers. Cindric made moves that Keselowski never did over the 201 laps at Daytona. Keselowski’s record in the Daytona 500 dropped to 0-for-13 on a day when he led a race-high 67 laps but also was involved in three accidents, earning the ire of those who thought he was too aggressive.

"Whenever somebody spins out, obviously there’s somebody over aggressive, but in the moment, I didn’t [think I was]," Keselowski said afterward.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Brad Keselowski pushing in the corner: 'I guess he just tried to wreck everybody in the field until he won'

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was critical of Brad Keselowski pushing in the corner: "I guess he just tried to wreck everybody in the field until he won. I guess his other car won that he gave up. So kudos to him."

Keselowski, bitterly disappointed, acknowledged Cindric finally got into victory lane using the crew with which Keselowski tried so hard to win a Daytona 500.

"I’m happy for them," he said. "There’s a great group of people over there, and they deserve all their success."

The team pretty much stayed intact, simply switching out the driver — a champion for a rookie, the proven for the unproven, the known for the unknown.

"I think our guys were up for the challenge," crew chief Jeremy Bullins said. "You look back at the last few years, we ran — it's a lot of the core group that we've had for years. ... We felt like if we stuck together and did what we always do, we could give him the tools that he needs to learn and be successful.

"I think that continuity is a very powerful thing in the sport."

You know what else is powerful? Talent. And Cindric has proven time and time again the past few years that he possesses racing skill. No more can anyone say he has his job because he’s the team president’s kid.

"Quite honestly, if he didn't get the job done, we might have changed [drivers]," team owner Roger Penske said of Cindric’s early years. "But he came along as well as he could under the circumstances initially.

"I think he's proven — this is going into the third year now. He's the top of his game."

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Bullins has seen Cindric grow through the Penske program.

"Whatever opinion anybody had of him had to have changed over the years with the experience that he gained," Bullins said. "I think Jeff Gordon tore up a lot of race cars, too, at one point, and he turned out to be pretty awesome. ... Did it start off great? Maybe not.

"But I'm telling you, the kid studies, and he works hard, and he puts a lot of effort into it. If he's not doing well, he will figure it out, for sure."

Here’s an example of how much Cindric studies. On Wednesday, when asked why and how he would win the Daytona 500, he astutely noted, "There’s a lot we’re going to have to learn over the first 400 miles to put myself in that position."

When asked what he learned in his victory Sunday, Cindric didn’t miss a beat, saying: "It’s a long list that I plan on doing before I go to bed tonight."

That Cindric is so focused can probably be attributed to, of all people, Keselowski. Cindric has an autographed photo of a Keselowski burnout in his room. He drove for Keselowski in NASCAR’s truck series.

He has looked up to Keselowski. And so he wouldn't use his victory Sunday as a time to puff out his chest. He wouldn’t use it to say there is a new kid in town.

"I’m not going to sit here and tell you I didn’t think it was possible," Cindric said of the victory. "But certainly, I don’t feel like I’ve replaced Brad in any sense of the word.

"He’s meant a great deal to our race team."

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There were five wrecks at this year's Daytona 500 including Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch & more. See them all here!

Much like his first Xfinity race at Daytona, Cindric’s first Cup race at Daytona ended at the infield care center. His memory of that race is mostly that "fire’s hot," as he said a few days ago.

Now he has also learned that beer is cold. And validation is sweet.

"To do it in my second try certainly is exciting," Cindric said. "But I’m definitely not a stranger to know that I’ve got a lot of work ahead, a lot of studying I’ve got to do to put myself on that level every single week."

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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