NASCAR Power Rankings: Austin Cindric starts out tops

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The Daytona 500 always has the ability to deliver a surprise.

It delivered again Sunday, giving us 23-year-old Austin Cindric as the next driver to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

For winning the biggest race of the year, Cindric starts the year as No. 1 in the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

NASCAR Power Rankings After Daytona 500

1.  Austin Cindric: He continues Team Penske’s run of dominance on the superspeedways. The organization has won three of the past four races on the big tracks. And that streak could easily be five in a row: Brad Keselowski (now at RFK Racing) and Joey Logano wrecked each other out of a win in last year’s Daytona 500, and they finished second and third behind Bubba Wallace last fall at Talladega.

2. Brad Keselowski: His first Daytona 500 as a driver/owner had its ups and downs. On two occasions, his pushes ended in crashes; one driver he pushed, rookie Harrison Burton, ended up on his roof. But Keselowski also led a race-high 67 laps and had a shot to win on the final lap. It wasn’t to be. Between Sunday’s performance and a Duel victory Thursday, Keselowski has much to feel good about his Speedweek, incidents notwithstanding. But a “500” victory remains elusive.

3. Martin Truex Jr.: Damage from a crash with 50 laps to go kept Truex from contending for a win. Before then, he swept both stages, which helped put him third in Cup points behind Cindric and Keselowski leaving Daytona. His move to win Stage 2 was particularly good: As Logano pushed Chase Briscoe, Truex got a big run off Turn 4. He tacked inside of Logano and beat him through the tri-oval to the line.

4. Ryan Blaney: After Penske teammate Cindric blocked him off Turn 4 on the final lap, Blaney said he wasn’t sure if that was fair or foul but noted that you have to block in that situation. Fair play to Blaney, who knows how the game is played. He ended up falling to fourth at the finish after leading 36 laps, second-most among all drivers. However, Blaney failed to score any stage points.

5. Kyle Busch: He was among those collected in the Harrison Burton wreck that ended Stage 1. Despite taking damage, Busch stayed in the hunt before finishing sixth. He led 28 laps Sunday, which puts him at 324 laps led all-time at the Daytona 500 – the most of any driver who hasn’t won the race. Will his 18th time in this race be the charm in 2023?

6. Bubba Wallace: A steady drive for Wallace, who got a push from fourth on the final lap and nearly took it all the way to Victory Lane. His second career runner-up at the Daytona 500 hits different from the first he had in 2018. Instead of jubilation, there was frustration. But one can argue that just shows how far Wallace has come as a driver. For him, and for 23XI Racing, there’s still more to go.

7. Chase Briscoe: Sunday started poorly for Briscoe, whose car failed pre-race inspection twice. That sent him to the rear for the green flag and sent one of his team’s engineers home. But at the end of the day, he had a third-place finish – his best in Cup. “I wish it was Talladega because I felt like if the start-finish line was a little further down, I may have had a shot at that thing,” he said. “But really cool to start our year off … with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500.”

8. Aric AlmirolaWas this Almirola’s last Daytona 500? If so, he went out swinging with a fifth-place finish, putting two Stewart-Haas Racing entries in the top five alongside Briscoe. 

9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Always one to watch on superspeedways, Stenhouse emerged late as a threat to win. But it all came undone on a restart at Lap 195 – losing the lead and then spinning off Keselowski’s nose into the wall off Turn 4. He scored points in both stages and led 16 laps.

10. Michael McDowell: The 2021 Daytona 500 winner came home seventh, picking up his fourth top-10 finish in his last five Daytona 500s. Special mention to McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports teammate, rookie Todd Gilliland, who showed well before being eliminated in the Lap 191 crash that brought out the red flag.