Daytona 500 Embodied Next Gen Spirit

The Cup season begins with two compelling races and loud party atmospheres.

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NASCAR and the Cup Series teams slanted the numbers forward and the Daytona 500 went off as usual. The world didn’t end!

All joking aside, the first points-paying race of the Next Gen era felt pretty normal in all the ways you’ve grown to expect but was equally extraordinary in all the ones you’d want to see growth.

Despite the arrival of a true spec racing platform, cars were still failing pre-race technical inspection on the morning of the biggest race of the year, a sign that competition is still taking place in the shop. That’s important and healthy.

Over-the-wall pit crews were challenged on pit road in pulling wheels off the rims. The overall performances on pit road were still marvels of athleticism.

Most important for the long-term health of the industry, there were a tremendous number of people in the stands and infield fan zone to witness the spectacle in person over the past week. While there remains no shortage of things to debate, this is NASCAR after all, the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum leading into Daytona Speedweeks has generated a ton of energy at the dawn of this new era.

Austin Cindric Represents Next Gen

At 23-years-old and in his first full-time season, Austin Cindric becoming the second youngest winner in Daytona 500 history is perfectly representative of the era the Cup Series is set to embark on. He took over the No. 2 Team Penske Ford with the departure of Brad Keselowski and has a resume that suggests he could become one of the faces of the next decade.

He has 13 Xfinity Series wins in 133 starts, and Roger Penske was essentially able to plug him into a championship caliber team virtually unchanged from the year before.

"The team we have, the longevity," Penske said on Sunday. "We have very little turnover on the team, and those guys come back. And that was a crew that worked for Brad last year, in many cases, and I think with him being able to take those tools, as a young man, made a huge difference.

"You bring (these drivers through) the funnel, and they've got to come up, and all of a sudden you get the results. "

Cindric held off teammate Ryan Blaney and good friend Bubba Wallace on the decisive green-white-checkered. That’s an average age of 25-years-old on the podium.

Next Gen indeed.

But Cindric is also a popular driver in the garage, as evidence by the number of competitors that stopped by Victory Lane to congratulate him on Sunday night. The son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, Austin Cindric has worked incredibly hard to overcome a stigma that he is only in this position due to nepotism.

"I would say I'm not an externally motivated person and I'm not an externally intimidated person," Cindric said. "My head is pretty much in the game 24/7. I don't think about much, anything else, except for racing. I don't have much of a social life. I hardly do anything else but go to the race shop and spend time either staring at my race cars or working out or spending time with my crew chief.

"For me, I guess I don't have time for the noise. But if there's anything I have left to prove, I'm not sure what it is."

Talk about silent steely swagger.

But that’s the sort of moxie you get growing up in the same shop and paddock as Helio Castroneves and Roger Penske, himself. Yes, Cindric has enjoyed the benefits and the connections of his legacy, but he’s also spent an entire lifetime soaking up every element of the racing business.

He’s a sponge.

"If I can be half the man Roger Penske is, I'd say I've lived a good life," Cindric said. "A lot of people talk about I get the opportunities that I do and I've become successful because of who my father is and what he's done in his life, and I think it's the exposure to those people have meant more to me, have meant more to my career, as far as leading and doing things the right way, than any other advantage anyone else can have.

"So, I feel really blessed to be able to do that and utilize that experience in my life from a young age, to be able to put myself on the front of the biggest stage and obviously have a great time doing it."

NEXT GEN A WORK IN PROGRESS

The new car has two really distinct data points through its first two races -- the absolute shortest track imaginable in the Los Angeles Coliseum and the second largest in Daytona. The Coliseum race featured two transaxle failures and the 500 saw two loose wheels even with the center-lock, single lug nut platform.

The cars that lost wheels struggled to drive away due to how easily the rear toe rods seem to break. The lack of an inner liner in the new Goodyear racing tires could also prevent drivers, who would otherwise drive away in previous Cup Series race cars, from doing just that.

A flat tire right now could legitimately end the race for a team. Harrison Burton briefly went airborne the moment his car turned backwards during an early crash. Those are issues that NASCAR will surely investigate and collaborate with the teams over possible solutions.

At the same time, the Coliseum provided a thrilling short track race and the Daytona 500 more or less looked like any version of the race over the past 15 years. The carbon composite bodies especially stood up well to contact that would have previously resulted in DNFs.

The car’s splitter did not dig into the grass when cars drove into the infield.

The sanctioning body seemed pleased with its initial offerings before the bulk of the season on intermediates, road courses and traditional short tracks.

"The car allowed the drivers to put on a great race today, and we saw a great deal of promise for the future," said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer.

"Cars were able to finish the race with damage that would have typically sent them to the garage in previous years. The incidents on track did not lead to lengthy cleanups due to oil or excessive debris on the track which was a definite positive. Each track will present new challenges.

"We certainly came away with some items we want to review and improve upon. Overall, a very positive first points race for the Next Gen car."

Diversity in Display

The Daytona 500 featured four black team owners in Michael Jordan of 23XI Racing, Brad Daugherty of JTG Daugherty Racing, Floyd Mayweather of the Money Team Racing and John Cohen’s NY Racing outfit. It’s important because it comes during a time where other sports have faced questions about representation at the highest front office levels.

It’s also a rewarding complement to existing powerhouses like Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Keselowski and Stewart-Haas Racing. That doesn’t even include Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by pop culture icon Pitbull, who comes from Cuban heritage.

If diversity is the spice of life, NASCAR suddenly has it in spades across its ownership roster. Mayweather, one of the most decorate boxers of all-time, gave driver Kaz Grala a motivational pep talk before the weekend.

"He was so pumped up about it," Grala said. "He was ready, jacked up and really confident in us. That was a cool pep talk to get — not one that I've ever gotten before. It was definitely a cool moment for us and having that validation that he's excited about this program."

The NASCAR industry has worked hard to communicate a message that the sport of stock car racing is for everyone regardless of age, ethnicity or geography. The Clash featured pre- and mid-race entertainment by Pitbull and Ice Cube. At the same time, NASCAR’s country music roots were reflected at Daytona with Trace Adkins and Luke Combs.

The energy of the past three weeks is a reflection of so many new fans giving the sport a shot, and that begins in a lot of ways with the influx of diverse, young and new team owners.

NASCAR has felt like a party with legitimately compelling races through the first three weeks of the season.