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Xfinity champ, Daytona 500 hopeful Austin Cindric preps for intense Speedweek

From familiar faces and redemption runs to Michael Jordan's brand new racing team, NASCAR on NBC takes a look at the top storylines going into the 2021 season.

Like everyone else in the NASCAR garage, Austin Cindric is looking forward to being a part of Speedweek next month at Daytona International Speedway.

The question is, will he be part of one big race or two?

The 22-year-old starts his Xfinity Series title defense in the Feb. 13 season-opening race. In the days leading up to that race, he’ll also seek to make the 63rd Daytona 500 (Feb. 14).

As a non-chartered entry, Cindric is not guaranteed a starting spot and must race his way into the Daytona 500 with his Verizon-backed No. 33 Ford.

He can claim one of the four spots for non-chartered entries by being the top finisher among non-chartered cars in his Duel qualifying race on Feb. 11 or via his speed from single-car qualifying on Feb. 10.

Cindric is one of several notables not guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500. Among the group are fellow Xfinity regular Noah Gragson (Beard Motorsports), JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece, past Daytona Cup race winner David Ragan (Front Row Motorsports), and recent Cup veteran Ty Dillon (Gaunt Brothers Racing).

At least eight cars are expected to vie for the four spots. That would be the largest field of non-chartered cars since 2016, the first year the starting field was cut from 43 to 40 cars.

“I started thinking ... about all the scenarios, and you start feeling a little anxious and nervous,” Cindric said during a media teleconference this week. “Even when this was coming together, just knowing the format and knowing how many open cars there are this year, it’s gonna be a challenge.

“I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t have as good a shot as any to qualify our way in on speed, but you can’t count on that. I’ve put a lot of prep work already into understanding the Duels and understanding the format. They take one car out of each Duel, so that’s a very small window. That’s where all my (Daytona 500) focus is right now.”

Should Cindric make the Daytona 500, it will mark his Cup debut and the first of the select Cup races he’ll run for Team Penske on top of his Xfinity duties this season. In 2022, he’ll make the jump to Cup full-time with the Penske-aligned Wood Brothers.

Cindric isn’t sure about how many Cup races he’ll run this season. He noted that Team Penske is having him run a variety of tracks.

While he’ll get a taste of things to come, he says his main focus is on defending his Xfinity crown.

Cindric faces a stiff field that includes two others from last year’s Championship 4 - Justin Haley and Justin Allgaier - plus numerous 2020 playoff drivers.

Also in the fray are drivers who are moving from part-time to full-time status, like Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Hemric and Haley’s teammates at Kaulig Racing, Jeb Burton and AJ Allmendinger.

But in sizing up the Xfinity field, Cindric said he hadn’t considered the idea of having a target on his back - and that his mindset isn’t changing much.

“As I’ve gone through NASCAR, I’ve really had somebody to look for every year,” he explained. “Whether it was in Trucks, you’d get out and immediately look to see where Christopher Bell was on the time sheet and to see how fast he was, see how his long run looked. ... There was the big three (in Xfinity) with (Cole) Custer, (Tyler) Reddick and Bell and you’d get out of your car and see what their 10-lap average looks like.

“I feel like we have a great opportunity, as we did last year, to be that guy or one of those guys. Not that that’s ever my goal, but that means you’re winning races, you’re bringing fast race cars to the racetrack. That means you’re a really strong team and our team on the 22 car is relatively unchanged, so I expect us to have just as much strength and, hopefully, continue to build on what we had last year.”