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: Michael McDowell scores upset victory at the Daytona 500

A daring last lap pass allowed Michael McDowell to secure his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th career start.

Michael McDowell hadn’t won in any of his first 357 NASCAR Cup Series starts. He was more than likely willing to wait a few extra hours brought up by rain.

In the wee hours of Monday morning, McDowell’s pass of Joey Logano on the 200th and final lap of the Daytona 500 allowed him to earn his first career Cup Series victory. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford led only the final lap but now goes down in history as a winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. It’s the first time mid-budget FRM has visited victory lane since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono in the same No. 34 car in August 2016. The victory also allowed McDowell to clinch the Cup Series playoff spot that comes with the win.

“Don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about…keep fighting hard. That’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, it’s the moral of everyday life. It’s the moral of our raceteam. You just never know what’s possible,” McDowell said about his upset victory. “I always knew if you just kept grinding , everything will line up…I’m just thankful to everyone who made it possible.”

McDowell, 36, has been racing at the Cup level since 2008, thrown into one of Michael Waltrip Racing’s original Toyotas after strong years of open-wheel racing. Years of struggling to gain traction followed, forcing him to take on several odd jobs and low-budget rides. A culmination of bad luck and poor equipment has led McDowell to take over the dubious record of most last-place finishes in Cup Series history (34).

But throughout the tough process, McDowell kept a strong sense of faith that never wavered. Even when he was languishing in “start-and-park” rides, taking over microbudget cars built solely to earn a last-place purse, he was confident that the elusive victory was eventually coming. Now, he takes home a title in one of auto racing’s most renowned events.

“Even when I was start and parking, I knew Id’ be able to have a shot at it…I never lost hope in that,” McDowell said. “I really think every weekend, this is the week it’s going to happen. I know that sounds crazy.”

The prowess of McDowell and FRM at superspeedway races was well documented. FRM’s first Cup victory came at Talladega in 2013, when David Gilliland pushed David Ragan to the triumph on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499. McDowell himself was a staple in the top percentiles of many superspeedway events at both Daytona and Talladega, previously earning a top-five in the Great American Race back in 2019. This time, however, he was ready to close the deal.

Drivers played things mostly conservatively after the 2021 edition of “The Big One” took out several contenders on lap 15. That incident took out 16 contenders on its own, including McDowell’s FRM teammates Ragan and Anthony Alfredo. Ragan was temporarily ending his retirement to drive the No. 36 Ford while Alfredo was making his Cup Series debut in the No. 38. Other notable names involved in the accident included top qualifiers Alex Bowman and William Byron, as well their fellow 2020 playoff drivers Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, and Kurt Busch. The incident started when contact from Christopher Bell sent Almirola spinning, triggering the big wreck. A red flag period of over five hours ensued when lightning storms visited the area.

Despite some close calls from there on out, drivers mostly kept to themselves in single-file racing for a majority of the final segments, working together in manufacturer-based alliances. McDowell lurked with his fellow Fords for a majority of the race and earned bonus points with a seventh-place finish after the second stage. The Ford group took the lead after final pit stops around lap 170, with Joey Logano taking the lead from Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seeking an unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 victory.

Even as the laps dwindled away, drivers kept the single-file pace, a situation prolonged by the fact that only 15 cars were scored on the lead lap. But when Logano took the white flag, McDowell teamed up with Brad Keselowski to hunt down Logano for the win. The two made it up there, but, after disconnecting, Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski made contact, triggering a fiery wreck that also engulfed the cars of Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric. and Bubba Wallace. The caution came out with McDowell barely ahead of the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Harvick avoided the carnage of his fellow Fords to finish fourth, while Hamlin rounded out the top five.

“I don’t know Michael very well at all, but he certainly has stuck around over the years and battled hard throughout the course of his career…I respect it,” Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion said of McDowell’s win. “I’m happy for him. Hope he enjoys it.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will remain in Daytona for another week, as proceedings now move to the circuit’s road course next Sunday for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 254 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). This race will be the first of a record seven road course events on the 2021 docket. Elliott has won each of the last four races on such tracks and nearly won the exhibition Busch Clash all-star race held on the course on Tuesday night but lost out to Kyle Busch after late contact with Blaney.

Race Notes

  • McDowell earning his first career victory in his 358th career start. Only Michael Waltrip (463) endured a longer winless streak to opening his career, ironically winning the Daytona 500 two decades prior.

 

  • Despite missing out on history, Hamlin let his Daytona dominance be felt with wins in each of the first two stages and leading 98 of 200 laps.

 

  • In his official debut for 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led a lap before a late vibration in his tires forced him to pit road, creating a 16th-place finish

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Trackhouse Racing Team

Multi-platinum artist Pitbull is adding NASCAR owner to a resume as long as a lap at Daytona, uniting with Justin Marks and Daniel Suarez.

2021 Trackhouse Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Daniel Suarez 99 Travis Mack iFly/Pump It Up Party/CommScope/K1 Speed

History

Armando Christian Perez knows all about what it’s like to make a difference and build successful ventures in Florida. In Daytona Beach on Sunday, Perez, known by his stage name of Pitbull, will potentially start a new one four hours from his beloved hometown of Miami.

Pitbull has teamed up with entrepreneur and former racer Justin Marks, opening the Trackhouse Racing Team, a new endeavor that adds to his enormous resume that also includes 11 studio albums, acting credits, and countless philanthropic endeavors. Those latter-most affairs are set to continue through a STEM education program that will work hand-in-hand with Pitbull’s SLAM Academy, a charter school in Miami. Onboard for the literal ride are Ty Norris, a longtime front office man who previously worked with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing, and Daniel Suarez. The Monterrey, Mexico native was the first non-American born driver to earn a championship in one of NASCAR’s three major levels when he topped the Xfinity Series in 2016.

“I’m far from a celebrity…I’m a hard, hard worker. Big difference,” Pitbull said of his new opportunity. “Celebrities will sell anything. I’m not here to sell anything. I’m here to help the culture, help unify, more than anything help motivate and inspire those through my story, through Daniel’s story, Justin’s story, Ty’s story, and NASCAR’s story.”

2020 in Review

After things didn’t work out in a single season in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 (since occupied by Cole Custer), Suarez signed with low-budget squad Gaunt Brothers Racing less than a month before the Daytona 500. Things got off to a brutal start, as Suarez got into a wreck at Daytona’s qualifying duels without a charter and failed to appear in the main event. Though the early dropout set the tone for a brutal season…Suarez’s best finish in GBR’s No. 96 was a pair of 18th-place postings at Bristol and Kansas…he was one of only seven full-time drivers to have two or few DNF’s (did not finish) last season. Among the others on that list were Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski.

Meet the Driver

Daniel Suarez

Experience: 5th season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 31st
Best standings finish: 17th (2019)

There’s no denying Suarez has the talent to race at NASCAR’s highest levels. In addition to his Xfinity title, he has earned strong postings in the Mexico-based PEAK Series and the national Truck circuits (16 top tens in 27 attempts).

Part of his struggles may stem from an uncomfortable entrance into the premier league. When Carl Edwards abruptly retired a month before the 2017 season opened, Suarez was thrust into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota with little preparation. He later got the boot two seasons later when champion Martin Truex Jr. was left without a ride after the closure of Furniture Row Racing. Suarez seemed to be getting the hang of his Cup ride at the time of the Truex announcement, with a runner-up finish in the latter Pocono race. Ironically, the No. 99 Chevrolet with Trackhouse, a number Marks chose to pay tribute to Edwards’ days in the identically-numbered Ford Edwards once drove for Jack Roush. Suarez also raced his way into the NASCAR All-Star Race twice with wins in the Open.

Speaking before he descended upon Daytona, Suarez was grateful for the rare stability Marks offered to him at Trackhouse. The original partnership was announced in October, three months before Pitbull joined in.

“This off-season has been probably the most productive I have had in a very, very long time…already knew since before the season was over exactly what I was going to be doing. When you are with that much time ahead, you can actually organize yourself, you can work hard, and you can put everything in perspective,” Suarez said. “For me was extremely important obviously to get together with Justin, with Ty Norris, that made this happen, and put everything, our goals, perspective, how we’re going to be able to achieve these things…Everything that Justin, Ty, Pitbull now, want to do outside the racetrack is amazing. I love all those things. At the same time competition is extremely important for me. I know I can win races. I’ve done it before. Championships as well. I want to do that in the Cup level.”

Outlook

The talent is there with Suarez, and he’s finally had an offseason full of certainty and some strong resources behind it. It’s difficult for any team to get traction in their first season, but it appears that Trackhouse has the resources and experience to at least get the ball rolling. If they can consistently run in the top 20, that’d be a great jumping point for a driver looking for welcome consistency.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman christens new ride with Daytona 500 pole

Bowman will sit on the pole for NASCAR’s season-opening event. He will line up next to Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron.

In NASCAR, some things never change. Jimmie Johnson has retired and Jeff Gordon will be in the media booth, but their respective vehicles will nonetheless pace the field at the Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman christened his new number with a run of 47.056 around the iconic 2.5-mile oval on Wednesday night, earning the pole for Sunday’s Great American Race (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It will mark Bowman’s first race in the No. 48 Chevrolet after the retirement of its seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson. William Byron (47.314) will be right beside him in the No. 24 previously occupied by Gordon.

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 consists of two different stages. Single-car qualifying, where each car runs a single timed lap, settles only the front row, while the rest of the field is determined through qualifying races known as the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

Bowman, 27, earns his fourth consecutive front row start in the 500, also winning the pole for the 2018 event while driving Hendrick No. 88. He also started in the front row next to then-pole sitter Byron in the year after. Alas for Bowman, coming off a career-best sixth-place finish in last year’s standings, no pole-sitter has won the 500 since Dale Jarrett did so in 2000 for Robert Yates Racing.

Byron will return to Daytona’s oval for the first time since earning his first Cup Series win at the regular season finale in August, a win that clinched him a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. The No. 24 rounded out the top five in Tuesday’s Busch Clash exhibition held on Daytona’s road course.

In addition to Hendrick Motorsports, Wednesday night proved to be a big one for both Ryan Preece (8th, 47.585) and David Ragan (13th, 47.730). Those two drivers were the fastest non-chartered drivers, guaranteeing them a spot in the main event on Sunday. Preece drives the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, while Ragan, who won Daytona’s 400-mile summer event in 2011, will pilot a part-time car for Front Row Motorsports. All other non-chartered drivers will have to race their way in through their respective Duel races. Among the contenders are defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric (driving a part-time car for Team Penske before making his full-time Cup debut next season) and his competitor at the de facto AAA-level Noah Gragson.

Wednesday’s qualifying saw 42 cars partake. Gragson’s No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was barred after failing inspection while Derrike Cope had battery issues with his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, is locked into Sunday’s race through an RWR charter, will be making his first Cup Series start since 2018.

For Thursday’s Duel lineups, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Wood Brothers Racing

Matt DiBenedetto’s immediate NASCAR future is secure. But such temporary stability could set the tone for the rest of his NASCAR career.

2021 Wood Brothers Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Matt DiBenedetto 21 Greg Erwin Motorcraft/Menards/Quick Lane

History

Founded by brothers Leonard and the late Glen, Wood Brothers Racing has been a NASCAR Cup Series staple since the 1950s. Though the team has yet to secure an elusive championship, some of auto racing’s most illustrious, most accomplished names have piloted their trademark No. 21 Ford. Winners with the Woods include Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Dale Jarrett. The team has accrued 99 NASCAR Cup Series victories, the last coming with Ryan Blaney in 2017. Among that tally is five wins at the Daytona 500, with the most recent in that slot being Trevor Bayne’s upset win in the 2011 edition. Only Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports have won more. Though the team has struggled in modern times, Blaney and current driver Matt DiBenedetto have brought them back into contention. Blaney’s victory, earned at Pocono, was the first Wood win at a non-superspeedway race since 2001 (Elliott Sadler at Bristol) while DiBenedetto was the first non-Blaney driver to earn double-digit top tens finishes (11) since Michael Waltrip in 1996. The team now holds a technical alliance with Team Penske, where Blaney currently drives the No. 12 Ford.

2020 in Review

Taking over the No. 21 from a retiring Paul Menard, DiBenedetto continued his successful climb through the cutthroat world of the Cup Series after placing the No. 95 Toyota at defunct Leavine Family Racing in the top ten seven times during the 2019 campaign. The 11 top tens were a career-best for the driver affectionately referred to as “Matty D”, who posted runner-up finishes in both Las Vegas events, as well as a third at Kentucky. Though a win proved elusive once more, DiBenedetto reached the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career, allowing him to come home 13th in the final standings…yet another career-best. DiBenedetto is still seeking his first NASCAR victory, though he did the All-Star Open at Bristol over the summer to gain entry into the exhibition’s main event. He nearly earned that victory at Talladega’s fall event, but Denny Hamlin stole the trophy while DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was erased due to a controversial penalty (driving below the yellow line) relegating him to 21st.

Though his playoff showing ended rather quickly, DiBenedetto was signed to a one-year extension by the Woods, though he will vacate the ride next season to make room for Penske developmental driver and defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric.

Meet the Driver

Matt DiBenedetto

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 13th
Best standings finish: 13th (2020)

It’s not surprising that DiBenedetto has gained a strong following during his NASCAR career. Rarely granted opportunities in strong equipment..save for seven races in Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide (now Xfinity) program in 2009-10…DiBenedetto has made the most of his chances in underfunded rides. He was responsible for defunct BK Racing’s best finish (6th at Bristol in 2016) and currently owns the lone top-ten Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 has achieved at a non-superspeedway (8th at Indianapolis in 2017). During the 2019 Bristol summer race, the victorious Hamlin said he was “sorry” for passing DiBenedetto’s No. 95 with 12 laps to go.

DiBenedetto has said the the confidence built over the past few seasons has offset the uncertainty looming after 2021.

“We’re ready as a team,” DiBenedetto said in preparation for Daytona. “The first bit of last year I don’t think we were ready to win because we had a lot to learn, we had a lot to learn about each other, and then it finally clicked like I was talking about and then I felt like we were ready…The best car doesn’t always win, so I think we are ready to put ourselves in position consistently to win and I think that’s how it’s gonna come for us and I feel like this year is definitely our year.”

Adding to DiBenedetto’s confidence is his strong finish to 2020. Had the Talladega runner-up posting remained, his average finish over the last seven races would’ve been 9.1.

Outlook

The time appears to be now for DiBenedetto. It might be a crushing hit for the No. 21 that one of the Bristol events has been bestowed the unpredictability of dirt, but there’s enough momentum with his team to get things rolling on a more consistent basis. It’s great that DiBenedetto worked his way into the playoffs last year (the second time a WBR vehicle made it), but he may need to both earn that elusive victory and advance a playoff round to maintain the decent equipment he’s working with. Since the No. 21 is being turned over to Cindric next year, this season serves as a de facto 36-race elevator pitch for Matty D.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Roush Fenway Racing

RFR is seeking redemption after a brutal 2020 NASCAR season, as both Chris Buescher and Ryan Newman fell out of the top 20.

2021 Roush Fenway Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ryan Newman 6 Scott Graves Kohler Generators/Guaranteed Rate/Castrol
Chris Buescher 17 Luke Lambert Fastenal/Fifth Third Bank/Castrol

History

The team was originally founded by auto entrepreneur Jack Roush in 1988, enjoying instant success with future Hall of Famer Mark Martin behind the wheel of its long-standing No. 6 Ford. His organization expanded to a multi-car organization by 1992, with several renowned drivers passing through his facility, including Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards. After Martin finished in the runner-up on four occasions (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002), the team won consecutive Cup Series titles with Kenseth (2003) and Busch (2004). The latter for Busch, coming in the No. 97 Ford, was the first held under the NASCAR playoff system.

In 2007, the Fenway Sports Group, headed by Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry, purchased a 50 percent stake in the team to operate it alongside Roush. The team has been a two-car operation since 2017, with Newman taking over the No. 6 in 2019 and Buescher arriving in the No. 17 (previously piloted by Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) a year later.

2020 in Review

Triumph nearly became tragedy at the Daytona 500. Newman, having previously won the event in 2008, was leading on the final lap, but inadvertent contact from runner-up Ryan Blaney launched him into an airborne wreck, one exacerbated when Corey LaJoie drove into the wreckage head-on. After several tense minutes, Newman was removed from the car was airlifted to the hospital, having sustained injuries described as serious, but he miraculously emerged from the clinic two days later with his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn by his side.

Newman vacated the car while he recovered, giving way to Ross Chastain. Thanks to the coronavirus-induced pause, he only missed three races, but he struggled upon his re-entry, earning only one top ten upon his return (a sixth at Talladega). His two top tens were the lowest tally of his full-time career.

As for Buescher, he took over the No. 17 from Stenhouse and got off to a good start with a third-place posting at Daytona. But the 2015 Xfinity Series champion failed to maintain that speed, earning only one other top-five posting (a fifth at the Daytona road course in August).

Meet the Drivers

Ryan Newman

Experience: 20th full season
Career Cup Victories: 18 (Last: spring Phoenix, 2017)
2020 finish: 25th
Best standings finish: 2nd (2014)

Set to enter his second decade of full-time Cup racing, Newman is a relic from the turn of the century as one of three full-time races that partook in “Winston” Cup racing (Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick are the others). Ever since he beat out Jimmie Johnson for the Rookie of the Year award, few drivers have been as tenacious and hungry to win as Newman. Even when things were dire last season, Newman kept his drive…literally and figuratively, as he remained one of the hardest drivers to pass.

It’s clear that RFR isn’t the powerhouse it used to be, but Newman has made the most of the equipment before. He reached the playoffs, without a win, as recently as 2019, the first Roush Ford to make it there since Stenhouse won two races a couple of years prior.

Chris Buescher 

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (summer Pocono, 2016)
2020 finish: 21st
Best standings finish: 16th (2016)

There’s no doubt that Buescher can compete at the NASCAR level. He took the underfunded Front Row Motorsports to the NASCAR playoffs in his first full season by virtue of leading at the time of inclement weather and owns championships at both the Xfinity and ARCA levels. Prior to his Roush endeavors, he drove another underfunded car, the No. 37 at JTG Daugherty, to a top 20 finish in the standings. But he struggled to find his footing last season, despite earning a career-best eight top tens. After consecutive top-tens at Bristol and Las Vegas during the playoffs, Buescher finished no better than 20th over the final six races. He should nonetheless be a threat to win at Daytona, where he has earned all but two of his six top fives at the Cup level.

Outlook

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Newman or Buescher to steal a win and the playoff spot that comes with it in 2021. Nothing more needs to be said about Newman’s tough luck at the end of Daytona and Buescher has been at or near the front toward the end of several events at both Daytona and Talladega. But a more realistic goal for this couple should probably be getting back into the top 20 of the standings.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR’s NASCAR dominance went unrewarded at both the Cup and the Xfinity Series levels. They’re seeking revenge and even more wins in 2021.

2021 Stewart-Haas Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kevin Harvick 4 Rodney Childers Busch/Mobil 1/Hunt Brothers Pizza
Aric Almirola 10 Mike Bugarewicz Smithfield
Chase Briscoe (R) 14 Johnny Klausmeier HighPoint
Cole Custer 41 Mike Shiplett Haas Automation/Dixie Vodka

Two-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart united with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas in 2009. Haas, formerly a collaborator with Hendrick Motorsports, had been running a full-time team since 2003 but was struggling to find traction. Stewart joined him in co-ownership and, under the new name of Stewart-Haas Racing, joined the team alongside Ryan Newman. Driving the team’s No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. Three seasons after, Kevin Harvick joined the team in the No. 4, formerly occupied by Newman under No. 39 branding. Harvick would win five races and earn his first Cup title that same year.

The team has raced Fords from the 2017 season onward. Stewart vacated the No. 14 the year before, giving way to Clint Bowyer for the last four seasons. Bowyer has since retired and will join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the Fox Sports booth. The team’s No. 10 car, introduced in 2012, was driven for six seasons by Danica Patrick before Aric Almirola’s arrival. Elsewhere, the No. 41 arrived two years later and was driven by Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez before Cole Custer’s takeover last season.

2020 in Review

The 2007 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Kevin Harvick’s 2020 endeavors.

These dominant efforts all went for naught, as the more controversial side of the NASCAR playoffs came to light when Harvick, the winner of a series-best nine races last season, wasn’t one of the four championship contenders at the championship race in Phoenix. His last two wins came in playoff events at Darlington and Bristol, but consecutive finishes outside the top-ten in the Round of 8’s latter stages doomed him to elimination.

As a whole, the 2020 season was a bit of a roller-coaster for SHR. Beyond Harvick’s efforts, Almirola was at least consistent, finishing in the top ten in nine consecutive races drummer the summer stretch. No wins followed, however, and he was eliminated after the Round of 12. Bowyer’s swan song was respectable, ending in a playoff berth after a runner-up finish in the spring Bristol race. Custer’s Cup debut was a bit of a disappointment, but he managed to steal a win at Kentucky, along with the playoff spot and Rookie of the Year title that came with it. He was eliminated after the first round.

Meet the Drivers

Kevin Harvick

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 58 (last: fall Bristol, 2020)
2020 finish: 5th
Best standings finish: 2014 Champion

If anything, last season simply made Harvick a stone-cold lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Harvick’s Cup Series career began under the most harrowing of circumstances. It was he, after all, who was called upon to take over Dale Earnhardt’s car when The Intimidator tragically passed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Prior to last season, he finished no worse than third in the final standings in eight of the last ten seasons. His Truck Series squad had also taken home two championships with circuit legend Ron Hornaday Jr. behind the wheel.

But, despite the lack of a championship at the end, 2020 may go down as Harvick’s greatest accomplishment yet. The way he dominated the circuit in a time where on-track preparation and adjustments were at an ultimate premium was extraordinary. The history was likely no consolation to Harvick, however, and that just makes this No. 4 team all the more dangerous in the future.

Last season’s win tally allowed Harvick to enter the top ten in the Cup Series’ all-time wins ledger. Up next on the list? Earnhardt at 76.

Aric Almirola

Experience: 10th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: fall Talladega, 2018)
2020 finish: 15th
Best standings finish: 5th (2018)

After wallowing in racing purgatory over at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has been consistent since being granted stronger equipment at SHR. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the No. 10 and came home fifth in the 2018 standings. But when are expectations allowed to be raised? Almirola felt primed for a breakout at numerous points last season. He had remarkably strong luck in terms of starting position during the random draw portions and led a career-best 305 laps this season. Yet, Almirola remains mired in a 77-race win drought. SHR renewed his contract last season, but Almirola wants to kickstart things to a higher level.

“So far, I’ve been able to have some success (but) I still want more,” Almirola said prior to the playoffs last season. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship…so far, we’ve been successful…I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient.”

Chase Briscoe

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

Much like his new teammate Harvick, Briscoe saw a dominant season go for naught, his own misfortune coming on the Xfinity Series level. Driving SHR’s No. 98 Ford, Briscoe won a circuit-record nine races but failed to take the championship at Phoenix. The most memorable victory came at Darlington in May, when Briscoe held off two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch for the win in the Xfinity Series’ return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Briscoe’s victory came shortly after his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage.

Briscoe will now replace the retired Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford, a dream come true for the 2016 ARCA champion. As an Indiana youth, Briscoe was a die-hard fan of Stewart, taking in his endeavors from the 14 car from afar. Now, it’s Briscoe’s to command on race days.

“The goal and dream was always the 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out,” Briscoe said in October. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from AJ Foyt to Tony and even Clint. There is a lot of pride in that number being a dirt guy and drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It is still unbelievable.”

Cole Custer

Experience: 2nd full season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Kentucky, 2020)
2020 finish: 16th
Best standings finish: 16th (2020)

Custer’s Rookie of the Year award wasn’t received well by some, as many noted that Tyler Reddick was the more consistent first-year man. But Custer was the only victory lane visitor with a yellow stripe on the back of his car, earning him the ROTY award. The shocker in Kentucky, NASCAR’s final visit to the Bluegrass State for the foreseeable future, did come during a short summer surge for Custer. Prior to the win, he posted his first career top five at Indianapolis and followed the triumph up with consecutive top tens after some bad luck in the immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, there’s going to be a bit of a target on this team’s back moving forward to perform on a more consistent basis.

Outlook

There’s little doubt that Harvick is going to insert himself in the championship picture. The only question is how many races he’ll take along the way. Almirola is also a potential playoff shoo-in but he needs to focus on getting back to victory lane, perhaps multiple times. Briscoe shouldn’t face too many obstacles in winning Rookie of the Year (his only competition, for the time being, is Anthony Alfredo in the underfunded No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), so he can focus on keeping the No. 14 competitive in the post-Bowyer era. If Custer can’t make it back to the winner’s circle this season, placing the car in the top 20 in points would be a goal to be proud of.

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: Ty Dillon earns Gaunt Brothers’ No. 96 for Daytona

Dillon will join his younger brother Austin at NASCAR’s premier event, piloting the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

The Daytona 500 will continue to get a double dose of Dillon.

Toyota Racing Development and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced that Ty Dillon will pilot the latter’s No. 96 Camry at the 2021 Daytona 500 on February 14 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Bass Pro Shops and Black Rife Coffee will provide sponsorship. Dillon, 28, is the younger brother of 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin and grandson of championship team owner Richard Childress.

“Gaunt Brothers Racing has given me a great opportunity to compete in the Daytona 500 and I couldn’t be happier,” Ty Dillon said in a Toyota-issued statement. “I love superspeedway races and the Daytona 500 is the biggest of them all. Toyota has certainly proven itself in our sport and in the Daytona 500. I’m looking forward to racing with them and reuniting with Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee Company.”

Dillon has spent the past four seasons driving for the single-car squad at Germain Racing, which ceased operations at the end of the 2020 season. He piloted their No. 13 car to half of its dozen top-ten finishes, with his best posting being a third-place spot at last fall’s Talladega event. During the 2019 season, Dillon gave Germain its first two stage wins and added another this season.

The more recent tally earned him eligibility in the Busch Clash, the exhibition race held prior to the 500-mile main event. It’s possible Dillon could partake in the Clash with 23XI Racing, the newly formed team headed by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, which is also under Toyota’s umbrella, but nothing has been solidified.

Dillon previously earned four wins on the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series levels, posting a runner-up finish during the latter’s 2013 campaign. He has run well at Daytona’s Cup offerings, earning three top-ten finishes in his last five visits to the oval, including a fourth-place posting in the 400-mile summer event in 2019.

Gaunt Brothers Racing recently wrapped up its first full-time season with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel of their No. 96, with their best finishes being a pair of 18th-place postings at Bristol and Kansas. Suarez and GBR announced that they would part ways in September, with the former driving the No. 99 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing this season.

“The best way to get a good start to your season is to have a good finish in the Daytona 500,” said Marty Gaunt, president, Gaunt Brothers Racing in the statement “We’ve got a talented driver in Ty Dillon with a strong TRD engine plugged into the best equipment available. Together with Toyota, Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee Company, we’re ready to compete and surprise some people.”

Dillon isn’t the only respected name of the circuit making his return to the Cup Series at Daytona. Not only is 2010 winner Jamie McMurray set to run the race in a Spire Motorsports machine, but Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports announced that Derrike Cope plans to run the event in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15 Chevrolet. Cope, 62, was the upset winner of the 1990 edition. At 62, Cope would be the second oldest driver to ever compete in the Daytona 500, behind only Mark Thompson in 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jamie McMurray returning for 2021 Daytona 500

The 2010 Daytona 500 champion will take over Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 for NASCAR’s season opener on February 14.

Jamie McMurray is temporarily returning to the NASCAR Cup Series, as he’ll revisit the site of one of his greatest triumphs.

Spire Motorsports announced on Tuesday that McMurray will drive their No. 77 Chevrolet at the 2021 Daytona 500 on February 14 with sponsorship provided by AdventHealth. McMurray, 44, has won twice at Daytona, with the latter of those victories coming in the 2010 edition of The Great American Race. He retired from full-time racing after the 2018 season and currently serves as an analyst for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage.

“It doesn’t get any better than the Daytona 500, and I am so excited to have the opportunity, thanks to AdventHealth, to run this race one more time,” McMurray said in a statement provided by NASCAR. “I have enjoyed my time out of the car as an analyst covering NASCAR, but nothing can replace the feeling of actually racing.”

McMurray is perhaps best known for one of the most shocking victories in NASCAR history, winning in only his second career Cup Series start back in October 2002 at Charlotte. At the time, McMurray was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, subbing for an injured Sterling Marlin. It was the fastest any driver earned their first victory at the Cup level in the modern era (since 1972) a record since tied only by Trevor Bayne through his victory at the 2011 Daytona 500. McMurray ran 16 full-time seasons with Ganassi (2003-05, 2010-18) and Roush Fenway Racing (2006-09), with his best finishing in the standings being a 12th-place posting in 2017.

During his full-time career, McMurray had a propensity for winning at NASCAR’s so-called “crown jewel” events. In addition to his two wins at Daytona (also winning the 400-mile summer event in 2007), the Joplin, Missouri native also won the fall event at Talladega twice (2009, 2013) and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in 2010. He also won the 2014 NASCAR All-Star exhibition at Charlotte.

McMurray previously worked with Spire in 2019, extending his career by one race to run the 2019 edition of the Daytona 500. Driving the No. 40 Chevrolet (a tribute to the No. 40 Dodge in which he won his first Cup event), McMurray ran consistently throughout the day and even led six laps before he was caught up in a late wreck, forcing him to finish 22nd.

Spire Motorsports has run at the Cup Series level since 2019 with a variety of different drivers. Like McMurray, the low-budget squad is used to upset victories, as they shocked the NASCAR world in their debut season when Justin Haley won the rain-shortened Daytona summer race in the No. 77. Haley, a championship contender on the NASCAR Xfinity Series level, is expected to return to the No. 77 in select races this season. Spire purchased the assets of defunct Leavine Family Racing last August, gaining the resources to field a two-car unit this season. Corey LaJoie will pilot their new car, the No. 7 Chevrolet, on a full-time basis. Other Spire alumni include Ross Chastain (current driver of Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet) and Josh Bilicki, who announced on Tuesday that he will be driving the No. 52 car for Rick Ware Racing on a full-time basis this season.

The 2021 Daytona 500 will be run on February 14 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags