“I’ve never felt so small in my life,” Austin Cindric said after Thursday night’s opening Daytona 500 qualifier. At 6-foot-4 and one of the tallest drivers to roam the garage, that’s quite the statement.
A pit-road speeding penalty in the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel threatened to thwart the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champ’s bid to make the 40-car grid. Instead, thanks to Ryan Preece edging out Ty Dillon in a battle of Open teams ahead of him, the 22-year-old Cindric will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kaz Grala emerged from the second Duel after a crash-slowed 14th-place result, besting Garrett Smithley and Noah Gragson, who were also involved in a late-race wreck. David Ragan had already sealed a Daytona 500 berth on speed, but raced in as the top finisher from an Open team, leaving Grala to fall back on his qualifying speed.
Cindric finished one lap down in 16th place in the No. 33 Team Penske Ford, losing touch with the pack after serving a pass-through penalty. But when Preece — who had at least clinched a locked-in spot based on his Wednesday qualifying speed — topped Dillon for fifth place to finish as the top Open driver, that allowed Cindric to fall back on his effort from time trials.
“I get the bonehead-of-the-race award, speeding in the last section of pit road when I nailed everything else the whole night that I didn’t know how to do,” said Cindric, who will participate Sunday as the fourth driver under the Team Penske banner. “So my guys can all have a shot punching me wherever they want to, but I’m obviously really happy to get our Verizon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show. There’s a lot left for me to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers is an amazing opportunity.”
Dillon, making his first start in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota, failed to make the Daytona 500 field. Timmy Hill, who raced his way into the 500 field last season, was the other driver to miss The Great American Race from Duel 1.
Cindric, realizing the chain of events that placed him in the Great American Race, walked over to the No. 96 to shake Dillon’s hand and console him.
“Obviously Ty drove a really great race. I think he outdrove what he was driving, put himself in a great position,” Cindric said. “It’s unfortunate because he’s definitely a veteran of the series. I think he deserves to be in the race. Like I said, some days it’s your day and some days it isn’t.”
Grala put Kaulig Racing into the 500 for the second straight year, despite his No. 16 Chevrolet sustaining damage when Chase Briscoe’s spin sparked a multicar melee off Turn 2 with 25 laps to go in regulation. He continued and his chances improved once Smithley collided with Brad Keselowski on Lap 56, collecting Gragson’s No. 62 Chevy in its wake.
Sunday’s race will mark Grala’s second Cup Series start. He placed seventh last August on the Daytona Road Course as a fill-in for Austin Dillon, who prevailed in Thursday’s second Duel.
“It’s great. Obviously, we knew coming into it, this was going to be a really hard year to make the race — excellent competition, great teams, great drivers trying to make this race without charters,” Grala said. “So we knew it was a tall order, but I will say now, being able to breathe a sigh of relief that we are in, it makes it that much sweeter knowing that we beat some real incredible teams and drivers to get into this race.”