NASCAR Xfinity Series: Austin Cindric holds off pesky Ty Gibbs to win the Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons

Austin Cindric led 26 laps and held off a pesky Ty Gibbs to win the Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“We were about two-tenths faster [than Cindric]” said Gibbs, the second-place finisher. “[If I had one more lap], I definately could’ve had another shot [to get him]”.

Gibbs led 11 laps, which was the fourth most of all drivers in the race. Daniel Hemric (18) and Harrison Burton (21) each led more laps than him, but Cindric led more than all of them en route to his fourth Xfinity Series victory of the season.

“[Gibbs was] gifted a three-second buffer and it’s his job to do something with it,” Cindric said. “I think [Gibbs] did everything he could, he ran a great race. I felt our strategy was a little bit better, [we] were fairly evenly matched throughout the day in clean air, so I just tried to manage my stuff and my gap and it worked out for us in the end”.

Cindric took the lead on lap 75 at the end of the pit cycle with a significant lead over Gibbs. As laps ticked down, Gibbs slowly cut into Cindric’s lead and narrowed it to within a second with just a few laps left. Cindric was almost collected by the No. 66, a lap car, when he ran out of fuel. However, he managed to avoid him and barely hold onto a victory.

“I thought he was going to run the apron, but then he didn’t have the capacity to do so,” Cindric said. “It was almost worst case scenario with a three second lead”.

Harrison Burton started the race from the pole position, led the first 21 laps, and won the first stage over teammate Daniel Hemric. Burton lost his lead during pitstops, and then wrecked out of the race on lap 38. His crash was right at the end of Stage 2, just four laps after a scary accident involving Justin Haley and Ryan Vargas.

Haley was turned from behind and into the inside wall, eventually coming up the track and collecting the No. 6 of Ryan Vargas.

“I didn’t know that anyone was outside of me or behind me with such momentum,” Haley said. “It just kind of knocked the wind out of me”.

Vargas, sitting 25th in the standings, had nowhere to go when Haley came up the track.

“I just hate it,” Vargas said. “I hate tearing up cars. I’ve helped build this racecar…. I hate tearing up Johnny [Davis’s] racecars because it’s the last absolute thing I’m supposed to do”.

While Haley and Vargas weren’t completely sure how the crash happened, Haley’s teammate and fifth-place finisher AJ Allmendinger had a view of the crash from his No. 16 car.

“It looked like the No. 8 car just absolutely destroyed him,” Allmendinger said. “When I saw him [get turned], I knew that was going to be a massive hit…..I’m just happy that he’s okay”.

Haley was scheduled to run the second race of the Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway in the No. 77 car for Spire Motorsports. However, under an abundance of caution, the team took Haley out of the car and replaced him with Justin Allgaier, who finished third in the Xfinity Series race.

In addition to the Haley/Vargas crash and the Burton crash, Josh Williams and Santino Ferrucci collided in the first stage while Riley Herbst crashed in the third stage.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to action next Saturday for the Henry 180 at Road America.

“I’m always pumped to go to Road America,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a beautiful place, [it’s] Fourth of July weekend…. what a place to go to”.

NASCAR: Austin Cindric reflects on Daytona debut, next steps

Cindric’s NASCAR Cup Series debut literally went up in flames, but there were plenty of positives to glean from Sunday’s race.

Austin Cindric had an epiphany in the wee hours of Monday morning on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500…

“Fire is hot”.

That’s what Cindric, driving the No. 33 Team Penske Ford, posted on Twitter after the race ended in a fiery finale, a multi-car wreck that also totaled the cars of his teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The on-track damage ended the race early, as the caution was flown for safety reasons, allowing Michael McDowell to earn his high-publicized first career victory.

According to Cindric, his postrace tweet was not meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as it was the first time he had been involved in a firey accident (set off by excess fuel remaining in the cars). Armed with his health and a slight sense of humor, he was able to smile about it days later, but overall called his introduction to fire “unnerving”.

“I wasn’t trying to be a smart-alek, but it is amazing. Holy cow. The amount of heat that comes off that,” Cindric said. “There was a big fire. That was the first time I had been in a fire. I didn’t know if I was on fire or not. That was a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was a big impact. I’m fine.”

It’s a shame that Cindric’s Speedweeks, the opening festivities of the NASCAR season, will be best remembered for the chaos on the last lap. In making his Cup debut, Cindric ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led two laps after finishing the first 65-lap stage in fifth-place. It’s the first of several starts Cindric, one of the modern stars of the NASCAR Xfinity Series (the AAA-baseball equivalent of NASCAR), will make in anticipation of his full-time debut on the premier circuit. The 22-year-old will race for the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing next season, taking over the No. 21 Ford now occupied by Matt DiBenedetto.

Cindric was officially credited finished 15th in the main event. Prior to the wreck, a miscommunication on pit road pushed him toward the back of the lead-lap field. He previously overcame pit road disaster, in this case a speeding penalty, in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels to qualify for the 500. The No. 33 finished 16th but gained some assistance when Ryan Preece finished ahead of Ty Dillon to secure the “open” spots available.

Cindric was pleased with the way his Cup endeavors went overall. He earned some positive feedback from Penske teammate Logano, with whom Cindric united as a draft partner for a good portion of the evening. Logano’s No. 22 Ford was leading on the final lap before McDowell’s victorious move and chaos erupted to close things out. Working with teammates was a fresh experience for Cindric, who operates as a one-driver show in Penske’s Xfinity program, where he represents the same numerals as Logano. Cindric won last season’s Xfinity Series championship, Penske’s first since Keselowski also won in the 22 back in 2010.

“I definitely wanted (Logano’s) feedback as far as things to do better and things we could work on moving forward,” he said. “He is really positive and really strong at that discipline of racing. It is great to have guys to lean on. I haven’t had teammates in a few years so to have guys to bounce ideas off of but also in an application where we can work together and make ourselves stronger as an organization is a great tool to have.”

“I’m a competitor so I’m frustrated by the missed opportunities,” Cindric continued. “But for me, it’s a first step of establishing myself amongst those drivers. Obviously, speedway racing is a much different discipline than a lot of the other race tracks we go to. I definitely know I have a lot more to learn and I am excited for the next opportunity to drive the 33 car, wherever that track may be, and try to keep building that momentum moving forward.”

Cup Series regulations allow for a handful of starts at the top level without sacrificing Rookie of the Year status. Cindric is expected to pilot the part-time No. 33 again at some point this season, but his next entry has yet to be determined. He hinted that he probably won’t return to the summer Daytona race in August or visit the other superspeedway at Talladega, as Cindric would like to get a taste of the different kinds of tracks the circuit has to offer.

“I want to get the experience and I think the intent on the team as well is to get me experience at intermediate, short tracks, and road courses,” he said. “As much as we can get done in the short schedule we have planned. That’s why I haven’t said any race tracks because I don’t want to commit to anything knowing that some of it is out of our control. That’s the intent.”

On the Xfinity front, Cindric began the defense of his 2020 title on a strong note, winning the season-opening Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona. NASCAR’s national series now returns to the Daytona road course, where Cindric led 21 of 52 laps en route to victory the Xfinity circuit’s maiden voyage on the track. Cindric will start in the front row for the return trip on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FS1) next to Brett Moffitt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon win Duels at Daytona

A long, wild evening in NASCAR’s preparation for Daytona culminated in big victories for Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.

Floridian rains created an extended halftime break at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, pushing the proceedings into Friday morning. But the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series made sure there was an incredible show in store for those that stuck around.

Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon were the winners of the annual qualifying races held prior to the Daytona 500, allowing them prime starting position in Sunday’s main event. Almirola won a relatively calm first duel, leading 52 of 60 laps in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford before rains pushed back the start of part two by a couple of hours. When the latter portion was finally allowed to proceed, Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet capped off a chaotic endeavor by holding off Bubba Wallace for the win in an overtime finish.

“It just gives us a lot of confidence. We know we have a fast car,” Almirola said of his victorious No. 10. “It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.”

The starting front row for the Daytona 500 is annually determined by speeds on single-car qualifying laps while the 60-lap/150-mile Duels order the rest of the field. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron respectively took home the top two positions on Wednesday night, while Almirola and Dillon would start immediately behind them by virtue of their Duel victories. However, with Bowman experiencing possible mechanical issues and Byron getting caught up in a late wreck in their individual races, they could be forced to use backup cars, which would send them to the rear of the field. Should Bowman and Byron opt to do so, Almirola and Dillon would lead the field to the green on Sunday afternoon to officially open the 2021 Cup Series season (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

With their victories, Almirola and Dillon each assume the title of Cup Series points leader. Drivers who finished in the top ten of each Duel are awarded points toward the official standings, with the winners getting ten each. The runner-ups received nine, and each descending position receives one fewer tally, provided the driver is competing for Cup Series points on a full-time basis.

Duel One

Almirola’s victory was part of a mostly placid affair, though there was late dramatics before he crossed the start/finish line for the final time. After taking the lead on lap 13 from Christopher Bell, the No. 10 would lead the next 20 laps before he and his fellow Fords pitted at lap 34. Retaking the lead when green flag pit stops cycled the field, Almirola led the final 23 laps before taking advantage of side drafting to hold off Joey Logano for the win. As Logano was shifted back to fourth, Almirola held off Bell by 0.041 seconds to secure the victory. Ryan Newman finished third, sandwich Logano with Ryan Preece, who rounded out the top five.

Almirola has finished in the top three in each of his last three Daytona qualifying races. He’s coming off a career-best 18 top ten finishes with SHR last season, though he hasn’t earned a victory in a points race since the 2018 fall event at Talladega. Almirola’s first career victory came in a rain-shortened summer event at Daytona while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014.

Bowman started the race on the pole by virtue of being the fastest car on Wednesday night. He quickly took a conservative approach, moving to the back to avoid chaos, but a vibration forced a visit to pit road, during which the crew raised the hood on his No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman was able to finish the race in 20th, four laps down. The crew will assess the situation to determined whether a backup car is necessary come Sunday. It will mark Bowman’s first official race in the No. 48 Chevrolet, taking over for retired seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Duel Two

Once the second segment got underway, Byron opted to play things more aggressively in the No. 24 Chevrolet, leading 24 of the first 32 laps. The racing was interrupted at lap 37, shortly before the pit window open, as a multi-car wreck drastically altered the playing field, a get-together that marred the days of Rookie of the Year contenders Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo.

Every lead-lap car visited pit road during the ensuing caution period, with the Fords of Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick assuming the front row of the restart on lap 40 after taking fuel only on their respective stops. Dillon pushed Byron to the lead two laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. later joining the fray. Truex took the lead at lap 52, shuffling Byron to the back. As Truex battled Harvick for the potential win, Byron’s car was heavily damaged in a crash triggered by Garrett Smithley and Brad Keselowski’s get-together. That wreck also ended the days of Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson.

Truex had the lead as NASCAR commenced a two-lap overtime session, and held it going into the white flag lap. However, he was shuffled into the middle with no pushing by Dillon and Wallace, who battled for the lead over the final turns. Bolstered by a push from Harvick’s Ford, Dillon got past Wallace in the final straightaway to capture his first career Duel victory. Wallace earned a runner-up finish in his first race for Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. Harvick finished third, Busch Clash winner Kyle Busch posted fourth, while defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott concluded the top five.

Ironically, Wallace was also the runner-up when Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500, a victory earned when he bumped Almirola on the final lap of the race. The affair was a bit of a bittersweet affair for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death approaches. Earnhardt perished on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 while running third behind his protege Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Open Cars

Almirola and Dillon were far from the only winners on Thursday night, Several non-chartered, “Open” cars also worked their way into the 500 with strong performances in the Duels, and maybe a bit of luck to go with it. Eight Open drivers attempted to take the four available spots. These invitations to the main event could be earned through either being one of the fastest Open cars on Wednesday or being the best-finishing Open driver during each Duel.

The first Duel race featured Preece, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. Though Preece was more or less locked into the Sunday field with the fastest qualifying time amongst the eight Open cars, his fifth-place finish likewise topped that same group in the opening Duel. Thus, with Preece now punching his ticket through the race, the qualifying entry shifted to the second-fastest qualifier, which was Austin Cindric. This played to the detriment of Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, who was passed by Preece on the final lap. Ty ran a strong, consistent race, but his failure to keep Preece behind him resulted in his elimination. Following the shutdown of his team at Germain Racing, Ty Dillon has signed on with Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota on a part-time basis. Alas, this will mark the second consecutive miss at Daytona for GBR, who saw Daniel Suarez wreck in one of last season’s Duels.

Cindric, the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup debut on Sunday at Daytona despite a dismal 16th-place finish. His quest to partake was seemingly derailed when he took a speeding penalty exiting pit road during green flag pit stops, putting him a lap off the pace. Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to get that lap back, Cindric did what he could to ensure qualifying results would play a role in determining who would go home. His plan worked to fruition, as he helped push Preece ahead of Ty Dillon in the race’s dying stages. Cindric is driving select races in a part-time car for Team Penske while defending his title at the Xfinity level. He will make his full-time debut next with the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing.

With Preece and Cindric advancing, Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill were each eliminated from Daytona 500 contention. The pair will nonetheless race alongside Cindric in the Xfinity Series opener on Saturday late afternoon (5 p.m. ET, FS1).

Things were more straightforward but equally dramatic in the second stanza. Kaz Grala’s Daytona dreams were seemingly dashed when he was involved in the Alfredo/Briscoe fracas. Losing a lap to repair the damage, it appeared Grala could only pray for chaos over the last 20 laps. Gragson, another Xfinity contender seeking to make his Cup debut, appeared to have the inside edge for the spot, though a surprise contender emerged in Smithley, driving the low-budget No. 13 MBM Motorsports Ford. Smithley was likewise involved in the incident that handicapped Grala but was running in the top ten shortly after.

But Smithley’s get-together with Keselowski triggered a large wreck that not only caused heavy damage to Byron’s car but eliminated Gragson with it. Gragson was representing Beard Motorsports in the No. 62 Chevrolet, a team that endured tragedy on January 31 through the death of team owner and founder Mark Beard.

With Gragson and Smithley out, Grala coasted to a 14th-place finish that secured his spot in the 500. He joins fellow transfer David Ragan, who came home 10th and was locked in through qualifying speed. Grala will partake in his second career Cup Series event, having previously subbed for an ill Austin Dillon at Daytona’s road course last season. Grala brought the No. 3 Chevrolet home in the seventh spot.

This time around, Grala will pilot the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. The team is well known for its exploits at the Xfinity Series level and is looking to expand its reach in Cup this season. Thanks to Grala’s efforts, the team will likely be able to run further Cup Series events, including the return to the Daytona road course next weekend. The team is expected to have former Cup veteran and current Xfinity man A.J. Allmendinger take over.

“(Tonight is) big for Kaulig. They’re planning on running a handful of Cup races this year, not just this one race like they did last year,” Grala said. “Being able to get in, especially now with the format as far as which cars are able to enter each race when there isn’t qualifying, this is a huge day for us, a huge day for that organization as a whole.”

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road. This is the first small step towards the big picture. I know it’s a victory for everybody on the team.”

For the full Daytona 500 starting lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Team Penske

Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.

2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Brad Keselowski 2 Jeremy Bullins Discount Tire/AutoTrader
Ryan Blaney 12 Todd Gordon Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Joey Logano 22 Paul Wolfe Shell/Pennzoil
Austin Cindric (part-time) 33 Brian Wilson Verizon

History

Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.

2020 in Review

One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.

Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.

While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.

Meet the Drivers

Brad Keselowski

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 2nd
Best standings finish: 2012 champion

Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”

Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.

“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”

Ryan Blaney

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020)
2020 finish: 9th
Best standings finish: 7th (2019)

It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).

Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.

“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”

Joey Logano

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020)
2020 finish: 3rd
Best standings finish: 2018 Champion

It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.

Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.

“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”

Austin Cindric (part-time)

Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.

While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.

“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 gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “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.”

Outlook

Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Xfinity Series champ Austin Cindric to attempt Daytona 500 run

Cindric, 22, will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup Series start in a fourth car fielded by Team Penske.

Chase Elliott won’t be the only defending champion racing at Daytona in three weeks.

Team Penske has confirmed that Austin Cindric, the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, will attempt to appear in the upcoming Daytona 500. Cindric will drive a temporary fourth car for team owner Roger Penske, the No. 33 Ford. Veteran engineer Miles Stanley will serve as his crew chief.

“There is a lot to be excited about heading into Daytona,” said Cindric in a team-issued statement. “It doesn’t really even need to be said that the Daytona 500 is the biggest crown jewel race in NASCAR and one of the biggest races in the world – so to have a shot to be in the show while driving for Roger Penske is a big opportunity.”

Since the extra Penske car doesn’t have a charter, which guarantees entry and part of the final race purse, Cindric will have to race his way into the main event through one of the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on February 11 (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Other notable names in that situation include Cindric’s fellow Xfinity Series competitor Noah Gragson (likewise seeking to make his Cup debut in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet) and David Ragan, winner of the 2011 summer event at Daytona.

“Qualifying our way into the race as an ‘open’ car will be a big challenge,” Cindric said. “I look forward to working with Miles and all of the guys on the No. 33 team, while also continuing my focus on winning back-to-back Xfinity Series Championships.”

Cindric, 22, remains the full-time driver of Penske’s No. 22 Ford on the Xfinity circuit. Last season’s championship run featured an incredible eight-race stretch over the summer where he won five races and finished no worse than third. His championship moment came in November at Phoenix, when he passed fellow championship contender Justin Allgaier on the final lap of the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200. He joined Cup compatriot Brad Keselowski (2010) as the only drivers to bring home an Xfinity title in a Penske vehicle. Cindric, the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, also placed third in the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings.

Stanley joined Team Penske in 2013 and has worked as an engineer on Joey Logano’s No. 22 (2013-19) and Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 (2020). He helped Logano take home the 2018 Cup Series title, the second for Penske after Keselowski’s championship run six years prior.

The 2021 Daytona 500 will be run on February 14 (2:30 p.m ET, Fox) with the 300-mile Xfinity Series opening being staged the day before (5 p.m. ET, FS1).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Matt DiBenedetto to stay in Wood Brothers’ No. 21 for 2021

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Wood Brothers Racing next NASCAR season, but will abdicate the No. 21 to Austin Cindric the following year.

The number 21 proved to be both aces and bust for Matt DiBenedetto on Thursday. 

Wood Brothers Racing, the NASCAR Cup Series’ longest-running team, announced that DiBenedetto would return to pilot their historic No. 21 Ford, but only for next season. Xfinity Series standout Austin Cindric is set to take over in 2022. Cindric has also signed a multi-year with Team Penske, with whom WBR shares a technical alliance.

While the situation seems bittersweet for DiBenedetto, the 29-year-old expressed only excitement and gratitude in a statement released by the team.

“It’s such an honor to be able to continue to drive for Wood Brothers Racing and have another year to grow with this organization,” DiBenedetto said in the statement. “I am excited to learn from our 2020 notebook and I’m confident that with a full season under our belt and working together as a team, we will produce even better results. I also want to thank Ford Performance and Team Penske for their efforts in making this happen.

“These types of decisions take a lot of time, as we all know there are a lot of factors in play. All three groups want to make the best decisions for everyone involved and I’m appreciative to have the opportunity to continue to compete for such a legendary race team.”

Founded by the titular Wood brothers (Leonard and the late Glen) in 1950, the No. 21 Ford has been a staple on the Cup Series tracks. Previous drivers to take the wheel include A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, and Ryan Blaney. The team has won 99 Cup Series, its most recent coming with Blaney in a 2017 race at Pocono.

While DiBenedetto is still seeking his first Cup Series win, he has gained himself a strong following after working his way up through the lower-tiers of auto racing. He raced for several low-budget teams at the Cup Series level prior to joining WBR, posting respectable results in subpar equipment. DiBenedetto’s patience was rewarded with his first NASCAR playoff berth. Through 31 of 36 races, he has earned a career-best eight top-ten finishes in the No. 21. He’s also tied his personal best with three top-five postings, including a pair of runner-up results at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February and September. Another runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday was taken from him when NASCAR determined that DiBenedetto forced race-winner Denny Hamlin out of bounds below the track’s yellow line.

In July, DiBenedetto raced his way into the NASCAR All-Star Race after winning the All-Star Open beforehand.

Though DiBenedetto was eliminated from championship contention after the first round, he was very hopeful about what the future had in store, continually expressing interest in re-upping with the Woods.

“I feel like the Wood Brothers are an amazing family, and you can tell they ooze confidence in me, and that’s such an amazing feeling. The same with Team Penske and our alliance with them,” DiBenedetto said after his more recent second-place run in Vegas. “I can feel that everyone has confidence in me and our team and knows we’re only going to continue to get much better.”

Cindric will take over the ride in 2022, as NASCAR is expected to run its highly touted “Next Gen” racecar. He will compete for Rookie of the Year honors behind the wheel the No. 21, but he will run select races with Team Penske next season. Cindric has enjoyed a breakout year in the Xfinity Series realm, winning five races in Penske’s No. 22 Ford. He currently sits in second place in the standings with five races to go.

It’s possible Cindric could take over one of team owner Roger Penske’s current full-time cars, which include Blaney in the No. 12 and former Cup Series champions Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in the Nos 2 and 22 respectively. Each of Penske’s three full-time cars likewise made the Cup Series playoffs, with Keselowski and Logano still in contention for the title.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Sunday afternoon with the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags