DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s not necessarily the warm beach air or laidback Jimmy Buffett-vibe of Daytona Beach that captures Austin Cindric’s heart when he arrives in Florida each January. It’s a far faster beat that moves him and there‘s nowhere else he’d rather be this week.
The 24-year-old NASCAR star fully concedes that from the moment he drove through the tunnel at Daytona International Speedway for this weekend’s 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opener, he felt that familiar special relationship he’s developed with the famed track.
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His dramatic victory in the Team Penske No. 2 Ford in the 2022 Daytona 500 — as a NASCAR Cup Series rookie, no less — immediately placed him among the all-time laurels at the historic facility. This week he’d like to elevate his standing even more by winning in the Rolex 24’s LMP2 prototype class, which would mark the first time in history a driver has won the Daytona 500 and taken a Rolex 24 class victory in the same 12-month span of time.
For Cindric, this week’s sportscar opportunity is a result of his love-love relationship between the two major auto racing events, the Rolex 24 (Saturday, 1:40 p.m. ET, NBC) and the Daytona 500 — so much so, that fondness and his success have created a bit of an identity crisis.
“It’s funny, here I guess I’m known as the NASCAR guy now, or at least I’m waving the flag as the only one here (in the Rolex 24),” Cindric said. “But in NASCAR, I’m still known as the road-racing guy. So either way, it’s really cool and special to have that response. I guess that’s what it’s all about, why this place was built.
“This kind of feels like home in some ways. I’ve been coming to Daytona a lot longer for this race (Rolex 24) than I have for the 500 or NASCAR Speedweeks. So when I get on the speedway for the first time for qualifying in the Cup car, I blow by the bus stop (the road course chicane) and feel like I’ve missed the corner — so much so that my heart sinks a little bit and then I realize I am on the correct line. That’s how used to this (Rolex) weekend I am.”
Cindric will co-drive the LMP2 Class No. 51 Rick Ware Racing ORECA LMP2 07 with defending Rolex class winners Devlin Defrancesco and Eric Lux and highly-touted young driver Pietro Fittipaldo, grandson of Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi. It marks the first race of a full-time 2023 IMSA entry for Ware, who also owns a NASCAR Cup Series team and fields cars in the NHRA and IndyCar series as well,
Often as Cindric spoke to the media in Daytona Beach during last week’s Rolex 24 test session, the Daytona 500 winner commented and gazed at his teammate Lux’s Rolex watch — a trophy for Lux’s 2022 LMP2 class win in the Rolex. It’s something Cindric wants badly. And has for years.
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This weekend marks Cindric’s fifth start in the Rolex 24; the team’s car will roll off sixth in LMP2 and 14th overall on the 61-car grid. Cindric’s previous best Rolex finish is fifth in the GT3 class — in 2019 and 2022.
“I think the first step (to winning) is having a really good (driver) lineup, especially in a category where the car is essentially ‘spec,’ ” Cindric explained. “I think we have a really strong lineup. There are a few lineups right now that are strong and I think we are one of them. So just going through the progression. Happy to be part of it.
“Eric and I have wanted to put something together for a few years now and it’s kinda cool to pull that off and I’m excited for the race.”
His teammates are equally confident and committed.
“When this whole deal came together, I was really excited and confident with the team we have, Rick Ware Racing and my teammates, Austin and Pietro and Eric,” Defrancesco said. “Pietro has been very strong over in Europe so he’s got a ton of experience in the car. Austin has the talent and has driven many different race cars and been fast in many different race cars. And Eric did a very, very good job last year with me here, so I think we have a very good shot.”
That’s exactly what Cindric wants to hear as he attempts to join a legendary list of Daytona 500 winners who have also won in class in the Rolex 24 — Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon.
“I want to win this race,” Cindric said. “That’s why I put so much work in. That’s why with the schedule we have (in NASCAR) I don‘t care about sacrificing my last two weeks of offseason because this is something I’m really passionate about. I‘m not passionate about just doing the event, I want to go win it.
“I’m not going to do something or be part of something I don’t think has the legs to be able to do it and between the lineup and the experience a lot of the team guys have, I think this has that potential. And it’s fun because I feel this lineup itself represents what makes this event fun for everybody.
“You’ve got one guy from NASCAR, one guy from Formula One, one guy whose IMSA, one guy from IndyCar and that’s what this event is all about, it’s a coming together of the people and individuals of motorsports and I see so many familiar faces here, people I only get to see once a year anymore that I’ve worked with and raced against. … I’m pretty hungry for the win and most importantly to get a cool watch like Eric has on.”