By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
One of the many to join the ballooned entry list for the 2021 Daytona 500 is Austin Cindric, the reigning Xfinity Series champion set to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the sport’s premier race.
The anticipated green flag February 14 from Daytona International Speedway isn’t yet on Cindric’s radar, however, as perhaps his biggest challenge lands on Thursday of that week: Making the race in the Duel qualifiers.
With 44 confirmed entries for this year’s 63rd running as of February 1, Cindric will have to race his way into the field of 40. With no prior Cup starts, the 22-year-old will pilot an added fourth car for Team Penske, the No. 33 Ford, alongside full-time drivers Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
Following three seasons in the Xfinity Series, Cindric is beyond ready for the big jump to Cup and the Daytona 500.
“For me it’s about what’s next,” Cindric said Monday. “For me, what’s next is trying to figure out how the best are the best and how to be the best of the best. That’s probably going to be a longer road than winning on an oval, so I’m excited to have a sneak peek at that this year and be able to get a taste of what that’s like.”
With an ARCA Racing Series win in 2016, a win in the Camping World Truck Series in 2017, eight Xfinity wins and a championship from 2019-2020, Cindric’s natural run up the racing ladder lands his firmly in the Cup world come 2022 when he joins Wood Brothers Racing full time. But first, a handful of undetermined races for Penske in 2021.
“I feel like driving in NASCAR [has] expanded my horizons as a driver and helped me progress to being a professional,” he said. “I feel I’ve grown a lot in a lot of different ways. My NASCAR career has been — I wouldn’t say under a microscope, but you’ve seen all the mistakes I’ve made because they’ve all been on TV. From my first race in the truck to my last race in the XFINITY car, I’ve learned a lot.
“There are a lot of things that I don’t know right now about how to drive one of those [Cup] cars and how to prepare for this race. So, leaning on a lot of experienced members of our team, whether it be my crew chief or my teammates and applying that to trying to make it in the Great American Race.”
Beyond the 500, where will Cindric next compete? Well, he returns to defend his Xfinity crown in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford in what will be his fourth season in the No. 2 series. And on the Cup side, Cindric will compete in various undetermined races throughout the ’21 campaign.
“I want to go out and win and for us coming back as the defending series champion is fun,” he said. “It’s a new experience for me. I’m looking forward to embracing that, but also stepping up my game.
“I can’t really speculate on [more Cup starts]. We still haven’t figured out what races those are, but I would definitely like to do some. The great thing is a lot of those road course races this year will be with practice, so I think that gives us a better shot of contending higher up in the field. But I’m not going to put any pressure on myself or expectations to be able to go out and do that.
“But otherwise, I think if I’m driving for Team Penske, I’ve got a great shot at every race that I go to.”
With plenty of Cup racing in his future, Cindric will use 2021 as a learning year before his full-time Cup career kicks off one year from now.
“I think in my head I’ve kind of compartmentalized the Daytona 500 as a separate program than the rest of the races we’re going to try and run. I think the first challenge would be probably starting at the back and trying to not go a lap down before the first caution. You try to learn as much as you can and hopefully be able to squeak a result out of it either way.
“I feel like I’ll be able to have a great gauge of my strengths and weaknesses moving forward into a full season in 2022, and I think that’s the number one goal is to figure out where I am in those regards.”