This is Austin Cindric's rookie year in the NASCAR Cup Series. It also happens to be the first-ever year of racing with what NASCAR is still calling the Next Gen car, a complete reinvention of the way the category's stock car racers are built. It means he has precious few lessons to unlearn, putting him in one of the most unique positions in the entire series. Today, he showed the power of not knowing for 200 straight laps.
Today's Daytona 500 was nothing like the "duel" qualifying races that preceded it earlier in the week. While those races came down to "pods" that formed after smaller packs broke up, a larger car count created a larger pack that stayed together longer and only began to break up a few times. In each case, a quick caution bunched the field back together. It meant that the dynamics of the race were different than many teams expected pre-race, but it did not change the expected balance of power.
Ford, the strongest of the three OEMs in Thursday's duel races, led early and often. It was RFK Racing and Team Penske that seemed to specifically have the upper hand, with RFK owner-driver Brad Keselowski working with Cindric, Penske's replacement for him in the No. 2 car, to lead early. All six Toyota teams worked together to bring a competing line to the front briefly, but Keselowski's car held the advantage through the first round of green flag stops
But a caution for a loose wheel shortly afterward, one lengthened when Cindric bumped too hard into the No. 14 of Chase Briscoe while he was decelerating and spun him into the infield, set up an early problem. With Cindric back in the field, Keselowski instead fought against the Toyota lane by pushing the No. 21 Ford of Penske partner Wood Brothers Racing. He gave that car's driver, Harrison Burton, a few good runs at first. Then, at the end of the first stage, he pushed too hard off the car's center into a corner and spun Burton. The No. 21 then blew over and rolled, the first rollover of the Next Gen car, in a massive pile-up that also took out half of the Toyota contingent.
The crash led Martin Truex Jr. to win stage 1, something he repeated when he beat Joey Logano to the line with a late move at the end of a much quieter stage 2. A caution for another midsized wreck early in the final stage saw the entire field pit under yellow, setting up a minor fuel stretch ahead of a finish where no driver needed to stop again if all went to plan.
That led to the field's first look at what would prove to be the deciding battle of the day. Cindric led one lane with the help of teammate Ryan Blaney and the entire contingency of the Fords that had dominated the race. But Bubba Wallace had a lane going on the outside, one he had no manufacturer help with after every other Toyota in the field suffered significant damage at different points earlier in the race. He briefly contested the lead, but the lane died and he was left out to dry.
Until, that is, Kyle Busch jumped out of line with a damaged car to help from three cars back.
Busch's move brought others, and, by the time Wallace had backed up to his teammate's bumper rather than jump in line, it was a viable lane led by two Toyotas. Busch's car certainly would have slowed the line as a leader, but he was perfectly equipped to push his teammate all the way to the front. A five-lap duel with Cindric and Blaney followed, then the pair actually cleared the Fords together and moved down to lead the race, 1-2, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the top line and caught up to the leading pair on the outside.
Then the inside line came up on the slowing lapped traffic of Jacques Villeneuve off turn 4. Villeneuve, who quickly dove to the pit lane afterward, was moving unpredictably. The inside lane slowed significantly, leaving Stenhouse's line to lead.
A few laps later, Wallace and the Penske Fords had found themselves back in a good position on the inside when contact between Kevin Harvick and Chris Buescher wiped out most of the field behind them, including the No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch. Wallace was out of manufacturer help yet again, but Cindric and Blaney remained together.
On the restart a few laps later, Keselowski hit the bumper of the No. 47 of Stenhouse like he hit the No. 21 of Burton earlier. Another spin through the field, this one tagging Wallace's right-front fender hard enough to send it flying.
But, crucially, creating no other visible damage.
The final restart, with two laps to go, saw the Penske cars starting together on the inside with Cindric leading Blaney and Wallace. Keselowski led the outside. The group stayed side-by-side together through the first lap and a half before starting to break apart out of turn 4, when Keselowski lost his drafting help and was forced to block the No. 14 of Chase Briscoe. He fell out of contention immediately, leaving the top three to fight among themselves.
Blaney went to the outside, Cindric blocked him into the wall. It was the sort of move fair among teammates only in the exact situation, in the trioval at the Daytona 500 when victory for one seems assured. Wallace capitalized, diving to the inside with his one missing fender. If he had a complete, perfectly aerodynamic car, it could have been a winning move. Instead, Cindric won by .036 seconds.
Blaney wrecked behind the new leaders. He would finish fourth anyway. Second on the last lap was not his winning position. Chase Briscoe finished third despite his early spin off the eventual race-winner's car and Aric Almirola completed the top ten. Four Fords, one Toyota. Kyle Busch, who had been involved in multiple wrecks and recovered each time, finished sixth in the next-highest finishing Toyota.
Wallace and Cindric drove magnificent final stints, the clear two best in the field. It's only fitting that their race ends as a photo finish. For Wallace, it's a disappointing end to a perfectly-executed race. For Cindric, it's victory in his second-ever Daytona 500 and an effectively locked-in playoff spot as a rookie, 1 race into a 26-race regular season.
NASCAR heads to Fontana next, but this race is worth soaking in. After three non-championship events in the past two weeks, that was the real beginning of the Next Gen car. It was stellar