Aaron Plessinger collects the finish he was due in Daytona Supercross

Plessinger Daytona Supercross
Feld Entertainment, Inc.

In his third year on a 450 and after 35 senior division starts, Aaron Plessinger stood on the podium for the first time in Round 9 of the 2021 Supercross season at Daytona International Speedway.

With a contagious smile, Plessinger told NBCSN’s Will Christien, “Me and the team, we’ve been working hard. The last two years have been tough. To come up here and get up on this podium means a lot to me. I can’t thank them enough. … It’ll come easier now.”

His joy was tinged with palpable signs of relief.

Two years ago, Daytona exacted a heavy price from the rider. Plessinger was finding his rhythm in the 450 class after an impressive career in 250s. He had just scored a career-best finish of fifth at Atlanta the week prior – his first top-five in 450 Supercross action.

Plessinger Daytona Supercross
Aaron Plessinger celebrated his first career podium in Round 9 at Daytona (Feld Entertainment, Inc./Align Media).

And Plessinger was making a name for himself as a rider who likes difficult tracks. While he failed to crack the top five in the first eight races of 2019, he came close three times with sixth-place finishes in the opening round at Anaheim and again at San Diego – both were tough, muddy races.

Daytona was just a little too tough that day. Five laps into the race, Plessinger had a hard crash in a rhythm section and limped off the track. A shattered heel kept him off the bike for the remainder of the season.

“I’ve had a rough time here,” Plessinger said. “My first year, I had the flu. My second year here I shattered my heel. Last year was alright.

“I was definitely due one. I got it done tonight and couldn’t be more happy.”

Without a podium finish, Plessinger has not garnered a lot of attention in the first half of the 2021 Supercross season. It can be difficult to grab headlines with only one top-five. Plessinger finished fifth in the second race of the Indianapolis residency, tying that career-best first earned in his rookie season at Atlanta.

But Plessinger has been in the front half of the field almost every week.

In the first eight rounds this year, he scored six top-10s and an 11th. His only stumble came in Round 2 at Houston. Since then, he has averaged a finish of about eighth. But there has been an undercurrent running through the Star Racing Yamaha team: hard work and experimentation.

“You’re going to see this more often,” Plessinger said after Daytona in the postrace press conference. “We’ve been putting in the work. We’ve been testing. We’ve been trying things left and right.

“I’ve been kind of the guinea pig with it, which I appreciate. I love trying new things, especially if they work.”

While the 450 class was not overly kind before Daytona, Plessinger’s confidence is well-placed based on his 250 career. Just prior to moving up a class in 2019, he had a career season with four wins in the 2018 250 West division and half a dozen wins in Lucas Oil Motocross competition.

“I’m going to keep this going and hopefully click off some podiums in the next few weeks.”

Plessinger Daytona Supercross
Aaron Plessinger and Cooper Webb battle for the runner-up position in the final stages of Daytona (Feld Entertainment, Inc./Align Media).

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”