Long: Daytona 500 win fulfills ‘racer’s dream’ for Austin Cindric

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Cindric arrived at Daytona International Speedway this week only to find his name misspelled on a sign marking his garage stall.

He will leave with his name forever marked in cement.

Such are the spoils of a Daytona 500 winner, something that the 23-year-old Cup rookie can say he is, while former champions Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski can not make the same claim. 

Sunday’s winner is the same person who was collected in a crash after the first lap of his first Daytona Camping World Truck Series race in 2017. The next year, he made 10 laps in his first Daytona Xfinity race before he crashed.

Cindric admits that if someone told him then that he would win the Daytona 500 one day, “I probably would have said, ‘Bull—-.”

Cindric overcame those early woes and improved as a driver. He won last year’s Xfinity season-opener at Daytona and followed that a year later by winning the biggest Cup race of the season in just his eighth series start. 

His success is due to his work ethic. Although he is the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, he got no special favors.

“Quite honestly, if he didn’t get the job done, we might have changed it, but he came along, I think, as well as he could under the circumstances initially,” team owner Roger Penske said. 

Cindric said he didn’t listen to those who said he got his ride with Penske based on his last name.

“I’m not an externally motivated person, and I’m not an externally intimidated person,” Cindric said. “My head is pretty much in the game 24/7. I don’t think about much, anything else, except for racing. 

“I don’t have much of a social life. I hardly do anything else but go to the race shop and spend time either staring at my race cars or working out or spending time with my crew chief. 

“For me, I guess I don’t have time for the noise. But if there’s anything I have left to prove, I’m not sure what it is.”

That wasn’t his only challenge. After three full-time seasons in Xfinity, he was told by Penske that he would remain in the Xfinity Series.

“Probably one of the tougher meetings I had with him was when we decided not to put him into Cup,” Penske said. “ … He said, ‘You make the call. I’m going to make it happen.’ That’s exactly what he did.”

A plan was put in place for Cindric to drive for the Wood Brothers in 2022. When Brad Keselowski left to be an owner/driver at RFK Racing, Penske changed the plans.  

Cindric would take over the No. 2 ride — a move that sent Harrison Burton to the Wood Brothers. Cindric is only the fourth person to drive for the No. 2 team since 1991, following Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and future Hall of Famers Kurt Busch and Keselowski. 

Putting a rookie with such an established team, though, could have caused some problems. For a team used to winning and contending for championships, working with a rookie could have been seen as a letdown for the crew.

“We’ve been together for so long that we felt like, if we stuck together and did what we always do, we could give him the tools that he needs to learn and be successful,” crew chief Jeremy Bullins said. 

The team did. Sunday, Cindric ran with the leaders most of the day. His average running position of 6.2 was second only to Keselowski’s average running position of 4.8.

Cindric led the final eight laps, but as he crossed the start/finish line to begin the final lap, even he wondered if he would still be in the lead 2.5 miles later.

“Everyone started lifting,” Cindric said. “Everyone was trying to get their runs, and I was probably 20 percent throttle for most of the last lap, just trying to stay relatively close to where I could at least defend something or be able to be close enough to be able to get to the tri-oval.

“I knew if I got to the tri-oval and I was nose ahead, I would get it. I actually learned that Thursday night (in his qualifying race). But for me, yeah, just holding off the wolves, it’s the race that means everything to everybody. Once you come off of (Turn) 4, all gloves are off and everybody wants it.”

And Cindric got it.

After a burnout near the start/finish line that broke the car’s starter and shredded a right rear tire, Cindric celebrated with his team. While awaiting a new tire and push to Victory Lane, he sat on the hood of his car and looked up at the stands, basking in the win.

“Definitely a good time to collect my thoughts and just appreciate the moment there for a minute, to be able to do this in front of a sellout crowd, to be able to do this in general, to be able to be part of this race, having a shot,” he said.

“It’s a racer’s dream, and so many people get close to it, and I feel very grateful and very proud to be able to pull it off.”

Monday morning in Victory Lane, he put his hands in cement to leave an imprint and did the same with his right foot. Then, he signed his name in the cement block that will become a permanent part of the Daytona 500 Champions’ Walk of Fame.

Never will his name be misspelled again at Daytona.

Austin Cindric signs his name in cement that will become a part of Daytona’s Walk of Fame for Daytona 500 winners. (Photo: Dustin Long)