Kenseth, Almirola, Custer notch solid top-five results at Indianapolis

When the checkered flag flew following an eventful Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard, Kevin Harvick emerged victorious for his third title at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Behind Harvick featured a unique trio of top-five finishers as Matt Kenseth chased Harvick across the line while teammates Aric Almirola and rookie Cole Custer took the checkered flag in third and fifth.

Coming into Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kenseth’s best result in his previous 11 NASCAR Cup Series races for Chip Ganassi Racing was 10th at Darlington Raceway in May while he also recorded seven results outside the top 15. He was also coming off finishes of 11th and 12th last weekend in the Pocono doubleheader. Starting 21st on a random draw, the 2003 Cup champion worked his way up to 14th through the competition caution on Lap 13. Following a red flag period due to a huge wreck on pit road, Kenseth proceeded to run inside the top 15 for the majority of the first stage. Following a late caution and a four-tire stop for adjustments, Kenseth restarted in 16th with only a handful of laps remaining in the first stage, but was able to work his way back to 12th. At the start of the second stage, Kenseth worked his way into the top 10, where he remained throughout the second stage as he settled in sixth following the stage’s conclusion. The final stage was where Kenseth quietly flexed his muscles as he worked his way as high as third behind Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps. Following a late incident that eliminated Hamlin, Kenseth moved into second and was alongside Harvick with an opportunity to win in overtime. During the overtime attempt, however, Kenseth could not gain an early advantage over Harvick as he navigated his way around the famed racetrack for two final laps and finished in the runner-up position to Harvick. While he came short of grabbing a much-needed first win of the season, the second-place result marked Kenseth’s first top-five result since winning at Phoenix in November 2017 and the best result for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet team since finishing fourth at Phoenix in March 2020. The runner-up finish was also Kenseth’s fourth in his 20th start at Indianapolis. The result moved Kenseth from 30th to 28th in the regular-season standings as he trails the top-16 cutline to the Playoffs by 138 points.

“It was a great day for the 42 team today,” Kenseth said. “It’s always nice to be up front and be in contention late in the race. [Crew chief] Chad [Johnston] did a great job on the box with his calls today. We had a really good strategy and the best tires coming to the end of the race, lining up fourth behind the leader late in the race, but just couldn’t get it done to take the lead. I tried everything to get to the front, but just didn’t have quite enough to get around [Harvick]. If we had gotten to the lead though, I know we would have been hard to beat. All in all, though, a great race for us. It felt good to run up front and was a confidence booster for all of us. Looking forward to getting to Kentucky and carrying that momentum forward.”


American Muscle

If there is a Cup competitor who has been on a roll in recent weeks, it is Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team. Coming off four consecutive top-five finishes in the previous four weeks and starting fifth on a random draw, Almirola was running inside the top five in the early stages of the race when he made an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 30 after reporting a vibration to his car. He was able to work his way back on the lead lap as the green-flag run progressed and finished 16th in the first stage. During the second stage, Almirola made another pit stop after reporting vibration concerns to his car, but he was able to finish 11th in the second stage. Throughout the final stage, Almirola worked his way back towards the front and was able to return into the top five with approximately 20 laps remaining. With 15 laps remaining, he passed teammate and rookie Cole Custer to move into fourth while he watched his other teammate, Harvick, trying to find a way to overtake Denny Hamlin for the lead. Following a late incident involving Hamlin, Almirola restarted in third behind Kenseth in overtime and was able to navigate his way to finish third when the checkered flag flew. Almirola’s third-place result marked the first time in his Cup career where he has notched five consecutive top-five results in a season as he also achieved his first top-five career finish at Indianapolis. With his result, he is ninth in the regular-season standings and is 105 points above the top-16 cutline.

“We had such a great Smithfield Ford Mustang, but we kept having to get off-sequence on our pit strategy because we kept having tires come apart,” Almirola said. “They’d start to come apart and they would vibrate and shake so bad that I could hardly see where I was going, so we kept having to pit for that and it kept messing us up on our strategy and getting us off-sequence, but fortunately there at the end the caution came out when we needed it to and things finally went our way and we knocked out another top five, so just really proud of all the guys on this team. We’re doing such a good job of being consistent. We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”

Finally, Custer rallied from an 11-race stretch of finishing no higher than 12th to achieve his first top-five run in NASCAR’s premier series. Starting 30th on a random draw, Custer dodged a bizarre accident on pit road under the competition caution that stacked up multiple cars running at the rear of the field. He was able to work his way into the top 20 before settling in 14th following the first stage’s conclusion. In the second stage, Custer made his first appearance in the top 10 before he finished in 13th. Following a pit stop for adjustments, Custer was lined up in 16th for the start of the final stage. He then worked his way back into the top 10 and was in the top five with 31 laps remaining. Following a late caution for a single-car wreck, Custer pitted and was lined up in sixth for the following late restart. From there, he was able to work his way into the top five and was one of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers running in the top five along with Harvick and Almirola. When the caution returned for another single-car wreck that sent the race into overtime, Custer was lined up in fourth and behind teammate Harvick. In overtime, Custer gave teammate Harvick the push needed to allow Harvick to maintain the lead and notch a victory at Indianapolis for the team. Behind, Custer lost two spots to Almirola and Brad Keselowski, but he was able to take the checkered flag in fifth. The fifth-place result marked Custer’s first top-five career finish in the Cup Series and his best result since finishing ninth at Phoenix in March 2020. In addition, Custer was the highest-finishing rookie of the race with Tyler Reddick finishing eighth, Bell in 12th, John Hunter Nemechek in 15th, Quin Houff in 23rd and Poole in 35th. With his result, Custer moved from 26th to 25th in the regular-season standings and is 87 points behind the top-16 cutline.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer said. “It is Tony’s [Stewart] backyard, so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. Thanks to all the guys at SHR for bringing great race cars. HaasTooling.com went national this week, so check them out. I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together. I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track. It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to race at Kentucky Speedway on July 12, which will air at 2:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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