Cindric starts new season with big Xfinity win at Daytona

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Austin Cindric celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Austin Cindric launched his bid for a second consecutive Xfinity Series title with a victory in Saturday night's season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Cindric makes his Cup Series debut Sunday in the Daytona 500.

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“What a way to start the season,” Cindric said. “Coming off a lot of momentum winning that championship last year, but nothing is guaranteed. Try to do it again tomorrow, I guess.”

He's the first reigning Xfinity champion to win the next year's season-opening race since 1996 champion Randy LaJoie won the 1997 opener. The win was Cindric's first on Daytona's oval, and first at the famed track in NASCAR's second-tier series for Team Penske.

Cindric won the Xfinity Series debut on Daytona’s road course last August as well as a rallycross event early in his career. Neither compares to winning on Daytona’s 2 1/2-mile, high-banked oval.

“Anything with four wheels, man,” Cindric said.

His future with Team Penske is already planned. The 22-year-old has this final season in Xfinity before moving next year to Cup to drive for Penske-supported Wood Brothers Racing. In the meantime, Penske will run him a handful of Cup races this year, and he'll be one of four Penske Fords in the Daytona 500.

He can only hope for similar success. Cindric got a push to the lead from AJ Allmendinger at the start of two-lap overtime that gave him control of the race. Cindric jumped to the top line in his No. 22 Ford in front of Harrison Burton, who in turn tried to dart below Cindric. But Cindric threw a block.

Cindric was all eyes on his rearview mirror as he held off Burton and Brett Moffitt over the final lap. He makes his Cup Series debut Sunday in the Daytona 500 for Team Penske.

His victory was a continuation of where Cindric left off in November, when he snapped a 13-race losing streak to win the season finale and the Xfinity title.

Moffitt was second in a Chevrolet and Burton third for Toyota.

Jeb Burton was fourth, followed by Allmendinger, who is back fulltime in NASCAR in an Xfinity ride with Kaulig Racing. Brandon Brown was sixth, Myatt Snyder seventh and Brandon Gdovic eighth.

Daniel Hemric and Jason White completed the top 10.

Ty Dillon finished 14th to end a brutal Speedweeks. He made a move for the lead with 16 laps remaining by pulling into a middle lane. Dillon tried to pick his way through traffic but couldn't clear Hemric before Dillon tried to jump back into the bottom lane. Dillon spun and triggered a 14-car crash.

He missed the Daytona 500 because of the quirky qualifying format that gave Cindric a spot in the race even though Dillon beat him in their qualifying race. He's out of a job after four seasons racing in Cup and Saturday was the first of four Xfinity races he's landed with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“We had our eyes set on the trophy,” Dillon said. “I had a blast driving that thing.”

Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress and his older brother, 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, is among the contenders Sunday. He's determined to go his own path, but his time this year at Daytona will be remembered for the discussion he sparked about the 500's qualifying system.