Custer storms to first Cup career win at Kentucky

In a two-lap sprint to the finish that produced an epic four-car battle for the win, rookie Cole Custer overtook Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney on the final lap to score his first NASCAR Cup Series career win in the 10th annual running of the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

The starting lineup was based on a random draw. Kyle Busch drew the pole position and started on the front row alongside Joey Logano. Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. started at the rear of the field after their respective cars failed pre-race inspection twice.

When the green flag waved and the 17th race of the 2020 Cup season started, Kyle Busch and Logano battled dead even through Turn 1 before Busch received a push from Aric Almirola in Turn 2 to retain the lead and lead the first lap. The following lap, Almirola and Keselowski each gained a spot while Logano fell back to fourth ahead of Alex Bowman. Behind, Kevin Harvick, who started third, had dropped to seventh.


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After spending the previous three laps trying to pass Kyle Busch for the lead, Almirola passed Busch on the inside lane in Turn 3 to assume command on the 10th lap. Five laps later, Almirola was leading by above half a second over Kyle Busch. Behind, Logano was in third approximately a second followed by Bowman, Keselowski, Matt DiBenedetto and Chase Elliott. Harvick was in eighth followed by Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

When the field reached the competition caution on Lap 25, Almirola had maintained his advantage by more than a second over Kyle Busch and more than two seconds over Logano. Harvick was in eighth while Austin Dillon, who started 19th, was in 13th ahead of William Byron. Jimmie Johnson was in 16th after starting 20th, rookie Tyler Reddick was in 18th ahead of Cole Custer, Denny Hamlin was in 21st after starting 12th and Bubba Wallace was in 26th ahead of rookie Christopher Bell. Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth, both of whom started at the rear of the field, were in 20th and 28th.

Under the competition caution, the entire field pitted and Almirola retained the lead followed by Logano, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Bowman and Harvick. Following the pit stops, Ty Dillon was assessed a commitment line violation and was sent to the rear of the field for the restart.

The green-flag racing resumed on Lap 30, and Logano, who received a push from Kyle Busch on the inside lane, challenged Almirola for the lead through the Turn 2 backstretch before Almirola cleared the field to retain the lead. Behind, Elliott moved into second and Harvick moved into fourth while Blaney and DiBenedetto battled for fifth. Kyle Busch had fallen back to 10th, Keselowski was back to 12th ahead of Truex and Johnson, and Hamlin drifted back to 24th ahead of Wallace. 

By Lap 35, the majority of the field towards the front settled into racing in a single file line with Almirola still ahead by nearly a second over Elliott. Behind the leader Almirola, Blaney challenged and made a pass for fourth over Harvick while Truex made his first appearance in the top 10 after passing teammate Kyle Busch. Far behind the leaders, Hamlin continued to drop towards the rear of the field as he was scored in 26th after being overtaken by Wallace, Ty Dillon, Bell and Michael McDowell. His teammate, Erik Jones, was in 19th after running in the top 10 early in the race.

Through the first 50 laps, Almirola stabilized his lead by more than seconds over Elliott and nearly four seconds over Logano. DiBenedetto moved up to fourth ahead of Harvick while Blaney fell back to sixth ahead of Bowman after his No. 12 Advance Auto Parts/Team Penske Ford Mustang popped out of gear. Truex was in 10th ahead of teammate Kyle Busch, Johnson and Austin Dillon while Keselowski was in 14th ahead of Byron. Custer was the highest-running rookie in 16th while Reddick and Bell were in 19th and 23rd. Kenseth and Ryan Newman were in 21st and 24th, Wallace was in 26th and Hamlin was in 28th.

Nearly ten laps later, Almirola caught a bevy of competitors trying to remain ahead of Almirola and on the lead lap, starting with rookie John Hunter Nemechek. A handful of laps later, Almirola lapped Nemechek, Corey LaJoie and Wallace with McDowell, Newman and Hamlin ahead of him. Despite encountering the lapped traffic, Almirola maintained a steady lead over Elliott while DiBenedetto moved into third over Logano and Blaney, who continued to battle with shifter issues to his car.

For the final laps, Almirola was able to cruise to the first stage win for his second stage victory of the season on Lap 80. By then, he lapped 25th-place Newman, but was unable to lap 24th-place Hamlin, who remained on the lead lap. In addition, Stenhouse sustained a flat tire as the stage concluded and he lost a lap in the process. Elliott was in second, four seconds behind, followed by Logano, DiBenedetto and Blaney while Harvick, Bowman, Kurt Busch, Bowyer and Truex were scored in the top 10.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Almirola exited first followed by Logano, DiBenedetto, Elliott and Blaney. Following the pit stops, Ty Dillon was penalized again, this time for speeding on pit road. In addition, Keselowski made another pit stop to have his lug nuts tightened.

The second stage commenced on Lap 87, and both Almirola and Logano, again, battled dead even for the lead through Turns 1 and 2 before Almirola benefitted on the outside lane in Turn 3 to retain the lead. Logano settled in second, but was being pursued by DiBenedetto while teammates Elliott and Bowman were settled in the top five. Blaney was in sixth ahead of Truex and Bowyer. On Lap 92, Blaney moved into the top five after passing Bowman. Behind, Johnson moved into the top 10 in ninth after passing Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch. Harvick had fallen back in 14th behind teammate Custer while Hamlin was able to work his way up to 15th ahead of Reddick.

When the raced reached its 100-lap mark, Almirola was still ahead by over a second over teammate Logano and two seconds over DiBenedetto. Blaney was in fourth ahead of Bowman while Truex overtook Elliott for sixth. Johnson was in ninth behind Bowyer, Kyle Busch was in 13th behind Reddick and teammate Hamlin was in 15th. Meanwhile, Harvick continued to lose positions as he was back in 19th ahead of Keselowski. Soon after, Harvick dropped out of the top 20, just behind Byron and Kenseth.

Twenty laps later, Almirola and his No. 10 Smithfield Vote for Bacon/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang stabilized a lead of more than two seconds over Logano and nearly four seconds over Blaney, who had overtaken DiBenedetto for position. Truex was in sixth in between Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates Bowman and Elliott while Johnson was in 10th behind Bowyer and Austin Dillon. Joe Gibbs Racing’s teammates Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Jones were in 13th, 15th and 17th, rookies Reddick and Custer were in 12th and 14th, and Byron and Harvick were back in 19th and 22nd. By then, 25 of the 38-car field were on the lead lap. 

With the race reaching its halfway mark of the 267-lap feature, Blaney, who had overtaken teammate Logano for the runner-up spot earlier and had trimmed a chunk of Almirola’s lead, caught and challenged Almirola for the lead. On Lap 138, Blaney, who encountered shifter issues early in the race, benefited from the lapped car of Nemechek to overtake Almirola for the lead in Turn 3. A lap later, Blaney extended his lead to above a second over Almirola. Another five laps later, Logano moved into the runner-up spot while teammate Blaney was ahead by more than three seconds. At the same time, green-flag pit stops started to occur as Reddick pitted.

With most of the leaders pitting under green, a handful of cars were on track led by Keselowski in the closing laps of the second stage. Just after Keselowski was making his green-flag stop, the caution flew on Lap 154 when Kenseth blew a left-rear tire and spun below the apron and back across the middle of Turns 3 and 4. Under caution, Kenseth pitted along with Harvick, Elliott and Byron. When the field cycled through, Keselowski emerged with the lead after beating Blaney to the start/finish line at the moment of caution from Kenseth’s spin.

In a one-lap shootout to the conclusion of the second stage, Keselowski was able to edge teammate Blaney by 0.058 seconds to win the second stage and secure his fourth stage victory of the 2020 season. Custer settled in third followed by Logano and Truex while Bowman, Austin Dillon, Johnson, DiBenedetto and Jones settled in the top 10. During this time, Preece took his No. 37 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to the garage due to a transmission issue.

Under the stage break, the majority of the leaders remained on track while some like Custer, Austin Dillon, Jones, Reddick, Harvick and Byron pitted. Also pitting was Kyle Busch, who was reporting shock issues to his No. 18 M&M’s Fudge Brownie/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. 

The final stage started with 100 laps remaining, and teammates Keselowski and Blaney battled against one another through Turn 1 before Keselowski cleared the field through the Turn 2 backstretch and retain the lead the following lap. Behind, Truex moved into second followed by Johnson as Blaney fell back to fourth. Meanwhile, Logano had fallen back to ninth. Three laps later, Kyle Busch, who was running in sixth, got super loose entering Turn 4, but was able to straighten his car and prevent it from spinning, though he fell back to 15th.

Eight laps later, Truex started challenging Keselowski for the lead, trailing by approximately a tenth of a second, while Blaney overtook Johnson and moved back into fourth. With 86 laps remaining, Truex was able to overtake Keselowski for the lead. By then, his teammate, Kyle Busch, was in 24th, the last car on the lead lap while dealing with shock issues to his car. In addition, Almirola, who dominated throughout the race, was stuck in 10th.

With 70 laps remaining, Truex was ahead by half a second over Keselowski while Blaney, who was still racing with one hand on the steering wheel while the other was holding the broken shifter, was behind by above a second. Johnson trailed by nearly three seconds while Kurt Busch was in fifth, trailing by more than four seconds. DiBenedetto, Elliott, Logano, Bowyer and Almirola were in the top 10. Ten laps later, Truex extended his advantage by more than two seconds over Keselowski followed by Blaney, Johnson and Kurt Busch.

A lap later, the race’s second round of green-flag pit stops commenced as Johnson pitted. With 44 laps remaining, while most of the leaders have pitted, Keselowski returned to the lead along with a handful of cars. Behind the leaders, rookie Brennan Poole’s was smoking due to a left-rear tire hub, a lot through the turns, but he continued under green. A lap later, Keselowski pitted while Custer inherited the lead, but was among eight competitors who had yet to pit. 

Then, with 38 laps remaining and just as Byron moved into the lead when Custer made his green-flag pit stop, the caution returned due to debris. At the same time, Austin Dillon, who was also about to pit but opted to remain on track under caution, spun and made minimal contact with the Turn 4 outside wall while returning to the track. Under caution, some drivers like Byron, Harvick, McDowell, Bell, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon pitted. Johnson also pitted after making slight contact with the wall. When the field cycled through, Truex was back in the lead followed by Blaney, Kurt Busch, Keselowski and Byron. Harvick, McDowell, Bell, Austin Dillon and Johnson were in the top 10 with 23 cars on the lead lap.

With the clouds hovering above the track and covering the bright sun, the race restarted with 30 laps remaining as Truex and Blaney battled against one another through Turns 1 and 2. In Turn 3, Truex cleared Blaney to retain the lead. Behind, Johnson, who made a three-wide move on the restart, was up to sixth as he would also return into the top five. At the front, Truex was ahead by two-tenths of a second over Blaney while Johnson was trailing by above a second. Behind, Harvick and Keselowski battled for fourth.

While Blaney continued to pressure Truex for the lead, the caution returned with 24 laps remaining when Nemechek made contact with the outside wall entering Turn 2. Under caution, the majority of the leaders remained on track while some like Kyle Busch, Jones, Bowman, Almirola and Nemechek pitted. Nemechek would, ultimately, retire following his late incident.

On the ensuing restart with 19 laps remaining, Johnson was pushing Blaney on the inside lane and attempted to move in front of Keselowski, who was peaking to Johnson’s left-hand quarter panel, when the two made contact on the frontstretch and Johnson spun his No. 48 Ally/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE below the infield grass, where he was able to straighten his car despite losing all of his track positions. At the time of caution, Blaney emerged with the lead ahead of Truex.

When the race restarted with 13 laps remaining, Harvick made his move on the inside lane in Turn 1 and went three wide with Truex and Blaney to emerge with the lead. Behind, Keselowski went three wide with Truex and Blaney before Truex moved into the runner-up spot. With the field behind scrambling for positions, Harvick was ahead by less than four-tenths of a second over Truex with Blaney in third, Keselowski in fourth and Austin Dillon in fifth. With 10 laps remaining, Harvick was ahead by around two-tenths of a second over Truex, who continued to pressure Harvick for the lead. Two laps later, the caution returned when Kenseth spun in Turn 4.

The race restarted with two laps remaining as Harvick and Truex battled against one another through Turns 1 and 2. Behind, Blaney settled in third while Custer, racing on the outside lane, received a push from DiBenedetto to move into fourth ahead of Keselowski and Kurt Busch. In Turn 2, Truex got Harvick loose and nearly turned on the straightaway as they swapped lanes entering Turn 3. Truex gained a big run on the outside lane to squeak ahead, but Harvick stalled Truex towards his quarter panel as Blaney went three wide for the lead. On the fronstretch, Custer made it a four-wide battle on the outside lane before he came out on top in Turn 1 at the start of the final lap. Past the start/finish line, Blaney ran over a bump on the apron and came back into the side of Harvick, who bumped Truex as Harvick developed a massive left-rear tire rub to his No. 4 Hunt Brothers Pizza/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang. At the front, Custer was able to hold off Truex for one final lap and cross the finish line above two-tenths of a second to claim his first Cup triumph in his 20th series start. 

With his thrilling victory, Custer became the 194th driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, the 33rd competitor to win across NASCAR’s three major national division series, the seventh alumnus from the NASCAR Next initiative to win a Cup race, the sixth Cup competitor to win at Kentucky and the first full-time Cup rookie to win a race since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened race at Pocono in August 2016. In addition to becoming the seventh driver to win a Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing, he recorded the 60th Cup victory for SHR and the first series win for veteran crew chief Mike Shiplett. 

With the victory, Custer, who came into Kentucky in 25th place in the regular-season standings and trailing the top-16 cutline by 87 points, became the ninth different competitor to be guaranteed a spot in this year’s Cup Playoffs. As another bonus, the Californian became the 16th competitor to secure a spot for this year’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15.

“Man, we were so good all day,” Custer said on FS1. “Our car was so good. Obviously, it wasn’t the easiest track to pass on. That was the best car I’ve ever driven in my life. Everybody at SHR brought an unbelievable car. [Team owner] Gene [Haas], I can’t stress enough how thankful I am of him taking a shot at me. It, definitely, was not the start of the year that we wanted. We were way off at some places, but this was, by far, an unbelievable car. We put it all together and I can’t thank everybody enough.”

In the first 15 Cup races of his rookie season, Custer’s best finish was a ninth-place result at Phoenix in March and his average result was 21.7 with two DNFs. Last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he recorded his first top-five result in the Cup level, which hinted a sign of improvement for Custer, Shiplett and the No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang team in adapting towards NASCAR’s weekly approach of experiencing the driving and handling conditions of a track on race day without practicing nor qualifying.

“It’s not easy,” Custer added. “You got to adapt as much as you can and I think we’ve gotten better and better at that. It’s just unbelievable. I didn’t think that we were, coming here, coming to win. Now, we’re gonna be in the All-Star Race. I don’t have to run the Open. Hopefully, I can make it to Bristol.”

Truex emerged as the highest-running Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota competitor in the runner-up spot followed by DiBenedetto, who claimed his second top-five result of the season. Harvick, who rallied from his early share of struggles and was in position to claim his first Kentucky triumph, ended his race in fourth and Kurt Busch, last year’s Kentucky winner, finished fifth. 

“It was fun,” Truex said on FS1. “[I] Can’t say enough about the guys on the Auto-Owners Camry, everybody back at [Joe Gibbs Racing] went to work this week and tried to get back to what we used to do here. Just hats off to the guys, [crew chief] James [Small], everybody that made this unbelievable racecar. At the end there, we were a bit unlucky, losing the lead to Blaney on that first restart by a couple thousandths and then, again to [Harvick] when the caution came out. We were side by side. That’s, kind of, the way these things go, sometimes. Really proud of the effort, super fast racecar and [I] feel like we’re back in the game now.” 

“Our Ford Mustang was not very good today, but we got a good break with the caution [with 38 laps remaining],” Harvick said on PRN Radio. “[I] Had a couple of good restarts there and got the car better. Still just not where we needed to be, but the restarts worked out in our favor. We were able to get the lead and Martin just misjudged there on the backstretch and got me sideways. I got out of the gas and that just brought everybody into the picture. Then, we were four wide on the front straightaway and [Blaney] hit the drain and came up and hit the side of the car. Then, I couldn’t see. Yeah, it got wild, but hey, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Just really happy for Cole Custer and everybody on the Haas Automation Ford Mustang. That’s pretty cool to get your first win. As much as I would’ve loved to win, I’m glad that we kept it in the company.”

“It was crazy,” DiBenedetto said on PRN Radio. “We had a really good car. We could’ve contended for the win. It was really fast. But, yeah, [I] lost track position when things shuffled around. We had to do the wave around and me and my spotter, I got to give him a lot of credit, Doug Campbell. I told him, ‘I think we should win some sort of restart award.’ We were 18th because the track position had cycled out with seven [laps] to go or whatever. [I] Had two monstrous restarts and then pushed Cole there to the win, which, kind of, felt cool, but good for him. Congrats, but this was a big race for us having the Menards, Quaker State Ford Mustang in the Quaker State 400. So, I wished we could’ve won it, but circumstances didn’t work out. We’ll take the strong finish and a really fast car.”

Blaney, Bell, Almirola, Keselowski and Reddick rounded out the top 10 while Johnson finished 18th in his 10th and final start at Kentucky. 

There were 13 lead changes for nine different leaders. The race featured eight cautions for 42 laps.

With his top-five result, Harvick continues to lead the Cup Series regular-season standings by 88 points over Keselowski, 95 over Blaney and 100 over Elliott.

Results.

1. Cole Custer, five laps led

2. Martin Truex Jr., 57 laps led

3. Matt DiBenedetto, one lap led

4. Kevin Harvick, 11 laps led

5. Kurt Busch

6. Ryan Blaney, 18 laps led

7. Christopher Bell

8. Aric Almirola, 128 laps led, Stage 1 winner

9. Brad Keselowski, 34 laps led, Stage 2 winner

10. Tyler Reddick

11. William Byron, four laps led

12. Denny Hamlin

13. Austin Dillon

14. Clint Bowyer

15. Joey Logano

16. Ty Dillon

17. Ryan Newman

18. Jimmie Johnson

19. Alex Bowman

20. Chris Buescher

21. Kyle Busch, nine laps led

22. Erik Jones

23. Chase Elliott

24. Michael McDowell

25. Matt Kenseth

26. Daniel Suarez

27. Bubba Wallace, two laps down

28. Corey LaJoie, three laps down

29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., three laps down

30. J.J. Yeley, seven laps down

31. Brennan Poole, eight laps down

32. Josh Bilicki, 10 laps down

33. Garrett Smithley, 10 laps down

34. Joey Gase, 10 laps down

35. Quin Houff, 12 laps down

36. John Hunter Nemechek – OUT, Accident

37. Timmy Hill – OUT, Electrical

38. Ryan Preece – OUT, Transmission

Next on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the 36th annual running of the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The NASCAR All-Star Open will occur first at 7 p.m. ET on FS1 followed by the All-Star Race at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, both on July 15.

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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