An unexpected winner that should not have been unexpected

Austin Cindric may not have been on the list of many as favorite at the time of pre-race introductions(Photo: Getty Images)

When Michael McDowell slipped through the carnage of the last lap to win the 2021 Daytona 500 it was appropriately labeled as an upset win by an underdog. After all, the Front Row Motorsports driver had toiled for years in the NASCAR Cup Series with teams that do not rank as top tier operations without winning a single race. Despite the fact that his previous record on super speedways had been noteworthy, he was far from being labeled as the favorite going into that race.

Some might look at Austin Cindric’s victory in this year’s Daytona 500 in a similar way. The 23-year-old Cup Series rookie had never won a race at the sport’s top level prior to the waving of the green flag on Sunday. For that matter, he had only competed in seven Cup races up to that point with a ninth-place on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ranking as his best career finish. 

But those who follow this form of motorsports closely were not as surprised with Cindric’s win as those who merely read the headlines and watch only the bigger events throughout the season. 

I will admit that I did not list Cindric as a pre-race favorite primarily due to his rookie status and the fact that other drivers might have been a bit reluctant to push someone they have not raced with very often during the treacherous final laps of a super speedway event. But as the race played out, it became apparent that the Team Penske driver would be among those in the mix to claim the Harley J. Earl Trophy at the end. With teammate Ryan Blaney behind him and a couple of well timed blocks thrown, the young driver was able to beat the field to the checkered flag for his first Cup win. 

With hindsight being 20/20, it should have been clear that Cindric had as good of a chance as any and an even better chance than most to win ‘The Great American Race’. The former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion drives a Ford for Team Penske. That combination is one that has proven tough to beat as the Ford teams work very well together on the super speedways and the Penske organization is always among the best prepared for any situation that might arise. 

Demonstrating their level of preparedness, Team Penske was one of the few organizations to show up at ‘The World Center of Racing’ with backup cars in the haulers during this time of shortages throughout the sport. That was evidenced when Joey Logano crashed in his Daytona Duel race on Thursday night and the crew had their second car unloaded by the time the wrecked car had been towed back to the garage area. 

Some will point out that Cindric’s father, Tim Cindric, is the president of Team Penske and one of Roger Penske’s chief lieutenants and that is what got the young driver his ride. And while that family connection almost certainly helped get a foot in the door, what he has achieved since speaks for itself. 

As stated earlier, I did not have Cindric penciled in as one of my pre-race favorites for the Daytona 500 but I certainly considered him to be a driver who would make the NASCAR Playoffs, which he has virtually assured himself of with the win. I even thought he would win at least one race this season but I thought it would come on a road course and after he had a bit more seasoning at this level. The No. 2 team he drives for is just too good not to run up front. 

Cindric smoked the competition at the end of the race (Photo: Getty Images)

Another thing that should have given all of us an indication that Cindric could win at Daytona is the fact that rookies in today’s NASCAR come to the top level much more prepared than in years past. Even though first year drivers tend to be very young nowadays, they have already accumulated a wealth of experience in the various forms of motorsports in which they have already competed in by the time they reach the top. 

Add to that, with this new Next Gen car, young drivers might even have a slight advantage over their veteran counterparts in that they do not have habits formed with the previous machine to break. They came into the season with a clean slate at the Cup level where the veterans may still be trying to make things work with this car that had worked for them before in the Gen 6. 

Yes, Austin Cindric is a 23-year-old rookie who just won the Daytona 500 in only his eighth NASCAR Cup Series start. And while that may seem like it was a bit of a surprise, it really should not have been considering that he is a very talented driver piloting a car for one of the top teams in the sport.

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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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