Speedweek begins at Daytona International Speedway on February 9 with Team Penske drivers Austin Cindric and Brad Keselowski having a lot in common, and both looking for a first at the World Center of Speed.
Keselowski is a NASCAR Cup Series champion. Cindric is the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. They’ve both won multiple races in their respective series and drive for multi-champion Team Penske.
And, they are both looking to make personal historic firsts at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Keselowski has 34 Cup trips to Victory Lane, but has yet to win the prestigious Daytona 500 in 11 attempts. Cindric has eight NXS wins, and is attempting to make his first Cup Series start doing so in the Great American Race.
Through his 11 previous Daytona 500s, Keselowski has endured his share of frustration with race day ending early because of wrecks. As time goes on, and him being on a one-year contract with Penske, his mindset of years ago has changed.
“My frustration level is pretty extreme, to be quite honest with you,” Keselowski said. “I feel like I’ve made some mistakes in that race, no doubt, but the last few years specifically I’ve ran really, really strong races and just didn’t have the ability to dictate my own fate.
“I think that’s what you want. You want the ability to know that, when you drive a race car, you’re making a difference and that it matters. That hasn’t played out the last few years, which is frustrating, but I know eventually it will and when that moment happens – we need to capitalize.”
The 2020 season ended with the Rochester Hills, MI native finishing second in points. His teammate, Joey Lagano, also made the Championship Four finishing third. Admittedly a sore loser, Keseslowski wasn’t pleased with that overall finish. The good part is he feels good about the new season because of that end result.
“Confidence is certainly very high right now, I’m inspired,” Keselowski said. “I feel really good about the team I have and their work ethic has been tremendous.
“The confidence goes up and down, there’s no doubt, and right now the confidence is pretty high. Ultimately, it depends on the results we put up on the scoreboard, not our confidence, but we feel pretty good about it right now for sure.”
Cindric heads into 2021 being No.1 in points last year. That was in the NXS, though. Jumping up to the Cup level is always a big step. Adding the pressure of having to race his way into the Daytona 500 makes the steps even larger.
Adding to all that, the new Speedweek schedule is allowing just one 50-minute practice session before qualifying. If Cindric doesn’t make it on speed in his No. 33 Ford, then he has one more chance to qualify via his respective Duel 150 on Thursday.
Because of how the starting line-up for this race is unlike any of the others, the 22-year old knows preparation is also different.
“I think anyone who makes plans at superspeedways do it because they’re nervous,” Cindric said. “There’s no way to prepare for these races, there’s no way to prepare for those scenarios. Qualifying is significantly important for both of our opportunities to make it into the race, but also where we start in the Duels.
“I’d be extremely unlucky if I didn’t have a Penske-affiliated car with me in the Duels, so that would be nice to have and nice to have teammates. If I get in the race, hopefully I can help those guys get stage points, try and fight for a race win and get a Penske Ford into Victory Lane for the Daytona 500.
“There’s a lot of work to still do, but there are definitely a lot of different scenarios and a lot of things you have to prepare for and sometimes, it will come down to the small details. Hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to missing big wrecks and the things you’re accustomed to seeing in speedway racing, but you definitely have to be prepared.”
With the Daytona 500 front row decided via qualifying on Wednesday, that leaves the other 43 entered cars to set a fast speed. In turn, that determines the starting line-up for the Duel 150s on Thursday to set the Daytona 500 field. For the five teams who don’t make the 40-car field, their Speedweek is over.
Cindric is one of the teams without a Charter and guaranteed-starting spot.
“You have a lot of guys who have won the race that are having to qualify their way in, so it’s definitely a challenge and it’s unique to this race,” he said. “I think it gives fans something to be excited about on Wednesday and Thursday, and a reason to watch the Duels probably more than any year.
“I’m excited for that challenge. Hopefully, we qualify our way in and I don’t have to lose too much sleep at night on Wednesday night. But, otherwise, every bit of my effort so far has gone into figuring what it’s going to take to qualify in in those Duels.”