Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500 was decided by a couple feet – rookie Austin Cindric’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford nudging ahead of Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota as they crossed the most famous finish line in stock car racing alongside one another in front of a sold-out crowd.
All afternoon long, the race featured close racing, strategic drafting and ultimately an overtime restart to settle the winner’s famed Harley J. Earl trophy.
There were 35 lead changes among 13 drivers in a decidedly competitive high-speed dance of skill and will. Today’s Daytona 500 also saw 104 green flag passes for the lead; the fifth-most since the creation of the Loop Data statistic in 2007.
And for all the emotion and drama of the race, the drivers had nothing but encouraging remarks about the premier series’ points racing debut of the NASCAR Next Gen cars – officially marking a new era of racing featuring the most innovative technical changes to the sport in decades, if not ever.
“At the end of the day, it’s a race car,” Wallace said, standing on pit road following the race. “I actually enjoyed being behind the wheel and learning a lot. The draft is a little bit different. Pushing is a little bit different, so some things that we need to work on and enhance our speed in some areas.
“So it’ll be a good debrief tomorrow. We’ll just talk about it and try to get better.”
Technically the car features a new horsepower package, aerodynamic changes, single-lugnut wheels, a composite body, even a new camera-rearview mirror. Aesthetically, the cars look different with numbers moved from the car doors further up toward the front fender area.
Teams spent much of the offseason testing them – their feedback resulting in tweaks here and there. And ultimately the car was declared ready for competition – Sunday’s race it’s important regular season debut.
As with Wallace, Aric Almirola, who finished fifth in his last fulltime season start in the Daytona 500, was impressed with the new car. He started 38th on the 40-car grid and was able to methodically work his way forward – missing multiple multi-car incidents to get his Ford to the front draft and in position to at least compete for the win.
“I thought the car was resilient,” Almirola said. “I thought the car was dicey to bump draft aggressively, the cars move around a lot and the bumpers are rounded so they don’t make a perfect match, but nonetheless, it was Daytona and we put on a great race, a wild finish and it’s always exciting.”
Added race winner Cindric, “There’s so much different about this car but it’s still the same style of racing. … It was really interesting to see who picked up on different things in the race and even in practice.”
Cindric’s team owner Roger Penske agreed.
“I think we’re on a great trajectory,” Penske said. “All the new fans we had at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum and certainly selling this place out, I think is terrific,” Penske said, adding “Everybody’s got the same hammer and it’s up to strategy, execution and the driver.”
“I think the cars we have today and the new rules are terrific,” he said.
DAYTONA 500 QUICK NOTES
*Austin Cindric’s victory in the Daytona 500 has not only been a confidence boost for his first fulltime season in the NASCAR Cup Series, but it’s also positioned him for another trophy. He is tied with Brad Keselowski for the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings lead but his Daytona 500 win gives him the tiebreaker.
And, his effort puts him atop the series’ Rookie of the Year points standings – ahead of Todd Gilliland, who finished 33rd and Harrison Burton, who was involved in an accident and finished 39th in the 40-car field. Cindric is the first rookie to win the Daytona 500 in series history.
*Former Indy 500 winner (1995) and 1997 Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve finished 22nd in his Daytona 500 debut. It marked his first NASCAR Cup Series start since 2013 – the fifth in his career. Former Daytona 500 winning crew chief Tommy Baldwin helped lead the effort this week.
*Hendrick Motorsports is still looking for a Daytona 500 race result to equal its Daytona 500 qualifying work. The team swept the front row in qualifying but it was the race proved to be another challenging endeavor. Chase Elliott had the team’s best showing in 10th-place. The championship organization’s other three cars were collected in accidents and finished laps down.
*Aric Almirola was clearly sentimental, but smiling when he climbed out of his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford after a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s race. It marked his last Daytona 500 start as a fulltime driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“This place means so much to me. I’ve sat up in those grandstands. I’ve won an Xfinity Series race here. I’ve won the July [Cup] race and I’ve won a [Daytona 500 qualifying] Duel,” Almirola said.
“This Daytona 500 just keeps getting away from me. Still, it was so much fun and so cool for my family and everybody to be here and experience it and enjoy it. I’m sure they were going bananas, jumping up and down thinking we had a shot to win.”