NASCAR: Rookie Cole Custer steals the last lap of a thriller in Kentucky

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For the first time in nearly three years, a rookie won in the NASCAR Cup Series, as Cole Custer’s last-lap pass scored an improbable victory.

Kentucky is known for hosting “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” via the Kentucky Derby, whose post time has been pushed to September. The NASCAR Cup Series was happy to partly fill the gap in the meantime at Kentucky Speedway.

The final two laps of the Quaker State 400 took just over a minute to complete, but they certainly retained the level of excitement and intensity the Thoroughbreds often provide on the first Saturday in May. An hour away from Churchill Downs, Cole Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came out on top at the end of a two-lap shootout, the final portions of the 267-circuit event. The rookie Custer beat out the combined 84 Cup Series wins of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney to earn his first victory at NASCAR’s premier level.



Custer sat in the sixth position when the caution flag came out for Matt Kenseth’s spin with six laps to go. He got a good push on the outside from fellow first-win seeker Matt DiBenedetto on the outside lane to catapult past the lead trio of Harvick, Truex, and Blaney. Once Custer got into clean air at the front, he was able to hold Truex off by 0.271 seconds to earn his first win in his 20th Cup start.

Custer, 22, has finished in the top five in the final standings in each of the past three NASCAR Xfinity Series campaigns. His full-time Cup Series debut got off to a tough start with only one top-ten finish over his first 15 starts in 2020. But he built momentum with a fifth-place finish at last week’s event at Indianapolis before his historic afternoon at Kentucky. Sunday featured not only the first win for Custer, but also the first win for his crew chief Mike Shiplett. The two united for seven wins at the Xfinity level last season.

The win for Custer proved monumental in other ways on the national level as well. Custer’s win ensures him a spot in the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Had Sunday’s effort fallen short, Custer would’ve had to race his way into the exhibition by winning one of the three stages of the NASCAR All-Star Open. One more driver will reach the event through a fan vote. Provided he finishes in the top 30 in the points standings, Custer has also more or less clinched a spot in the Cup Series playoffs this fall. He is the first Rookie of the Year competitor to a win a Cup Series race since Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened Pocono event in August 2016 and the first to do so without the assistance of weather since Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma Raceway in 2007 (Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski won as part-time drivers in 2011 and 2013 respectively).

Truex, a two-time winner at Kentucky, managed to hold on to the runner-up spot despite late contact with Harvick, who finished third behind DiBenedetto. Defending race-winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.

Following the non-points race at Bristol, the NASCAR regular season resumes next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway via the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Custer currently sits in the 20th spot in the standings but leapfrogs ahead of 16th-place Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot. Dillon was involved in a late incident with Brennan Poole but recovered to finish 13th.

 

  • Jimmie Johnson returned to the track after missing the Indianapolis race due to a positive test for COVID-19. It ended his streak of 663 consecutive Cup Series starts, but two negative tests in a 24-hour span allowed him to return. Johnson was in third place for a restart with 19 laps to go, but contact with Brad Keselowski spun him out and relegated him to an 18th-place finish. He nonetheless holds the final playoff spots via points, 24 points in front of Dillon.

 

  • In addition to Custer, two other rookies finished in the top ten, including Christopher Bell (7th) and Tyler Reddick (10th).

 

  • Aric Almirola saw his streak of consecutive top-five postings end at five races. Almirola still managed a top-ten finish (8th) and won the first stage of the race as part of a streak where he led 128 consecutive laps.

 

  • Benefitting from a separate Kenseth spin, Keselowski (9th) used a late caution to his advantage to win stage two.

 

  • John Hunter Nemechek (accident), Timmy Hill (electrical), Ryan Preece (transmission) all failed to finish

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here



Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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