A stunner: Cole Custer goes from sixth to first in two laps to win at Kentucky

Nick Bromberg
·7 min read

Cole Custer has his first Cup Series win. And no one saw it coming.

Custer passed Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. with a four-wide move at the white flag to win Sunday’s race at Kentucky and secure a berth in the playoffs.

Custer, a rookie, restarted sixth with two laps to go. Harvick and Truex were the top two and Truex gave Harvick a bump on the backstretch on the penultimate lap. Custer got a huge run off turns 3 and 4 as Blaney went to the inside of Harvick and Truex and Custer somehow cleared all three drivers into turn 1 on the final lap.

Blaney’s car got a little air as they were all four-wide. He went down to the apron to try to make a pass and ended up hitting a bump down there. That shot his car up the track and into Harvick and the contact gave Harvick a significant tire rub. Harvick still finished fourth, behind Truex in second and Matt DiBenedetto in third.

Custer was 25th in points

Custer is a rookie in 2020 and, well, his performance had reflected that rookie status through 16 races. Custer entered Sunday’s race 25th in the points standings and had just one top-10 finish.

But he gave teammate Harvick a key shove late in last week’s race at Indianapolis before finishing 17th. And now he’s going to the playoffs. NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff format includes all drivers with a win and the remaining drivers highest in the points standings. Custer, who wasn’t going to make the playoffs via points, is the ninth driver to get a win through 17 races.

Custer joined the Cup Series after Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t re-sign Daniel Suarez after one season in the No. 41 car. Custer, the son of SHR executive Joe Custer, won seven Xfinity Series races in 2019 and had finished second in the second-tier series in back-to-back seasons.

The win pushed Custer up five spots in the standings to 20th.

Finish set up by odd caution

Consider the final two laps of Sunday’s race the five-minute action sequence you’ve been waiting for throughout a dreadful three-hour movie. It helped wash away what was an extremely boring race through the first 200+ laps of the 267-lap event. Drivers struggled to pass each other after restarts and tire wear was virtually nonexistent. There was a considerable amount of time where one could have wondered if the race’s most redeeming moment would simply be the fact that it was over.

Instead, NASCAR got its highlight moment. And it was set up by a slightly questionable caution from race control.

As Truex and Harvick were racing for the apparent win with eight laps to go, Matt Kenseth spun off turn four and onto pit road. Kenseth was about eight seconds behind the leaders when he spun.

The race stayed green as Harvick and Truex raced off turn 2 and down the backstretch following Kenseth’s spin. The caution lights entering turn 3 are illuminated as the leaders dive into the corner, but the two drivers don’t slow down until they were in turn 4, where Kenseth had spun on the previous lap.

Kenseth’s car, meanwhile, wasn’t stuck on pit road. It was back on track when Fox cut to it approximately a minute after the crash happened and a replay cut away before viewers could see if it came to a prolonged stop on pit road to draw the caution flag from NASCAR race control.

Predictably, Fox’s porous NASCAR coverage didn’t give viewers a detailed explanation of what had happened. Heck, announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon didn’t realize a caution had happened either until Harvick and Truex started slowing down. While Fox’s broadcasts have struggled in recent years to convey smart, clear, and accurate information to viewers to explain what is happening on the track, that struggle has been exacerbated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Joy and Gordon have been calling races remotely from a studio since NASCAR resumed racing in May. It’s the sensible move as it allows Fox to have fewer people on the road and potentially exposed to the virus. But that sensibility also comes with a downside and that downside was on display throughout that caution sequence.

The caution also foiled what was setting up to be a great battle between Truex and Harvick too. Truex appeared to have the faster car — Harvick had stolen the lead away with a clever three-wide maneuver on the previous restart — but was having to work incredibly hard to get around Harvick.

Johnson’s chances at a win spin away

Jimmie Johnson had driven up to third with less than 30 laps to go. But an ill-timed block on Brad Keselowski during a lap 248 restart ended any hope Johnson had of getting his first victory since 2017.

Keselowski dipped to the apron to pass Johnson and Johnson tried to react accordingly. He moved too late, however, and went spinning into the infield.

Johnson may be holding a grudge against Keselowski after the crash too. Here’s what he tweeted after the race.

Johnson ended up 18th in his first race back after testing positive for COVID-19. He’s 15th in the points standings and now the last driver in the provisional playoff field. Johnson is 30 points ahead of Austin Dillon in 16th and just 23 points back of DiBenedetto in 12th.

The All-Star Race is next

Fox’s portion of the Cup Series TV schedule concludes on Wednesday with the All-Star Race at Bristol. It’s the first time the short track has hosted the race and the main event will now feature Custer, as his win earned him a spot in the feature.

The move of the race to Bristol is long overdue as All-Star Race racing has suffered at Charlotte — though the aerodynamic and horsepower rules NASCAR experimented with at the 2018 race led to the type of racing that you see now at larger tracks in the Cup Series.

The All-Star Race was set to be run in May but was postponed because of the pandemic.

Full results

1. Cole Custer

2. Martin Truex Jr.

3. Matt DiBenedetto

4. Kevin Harvick

5. Kurt Busch

6. Ryan Blaney

7. Christopher Bell

8. Aric Almirola

9. Brad Keselowski

10. Tyler Reddick

11. William Byron

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

22. Erik Jones

23. Chase Elliott

24. Michael McDowell

25. Matt Kenseth

26. Daniel Suarez

27. Bubba Wallace

28. Corey LaJoie

29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

30. JJ Yeley

31. Brennan Poole

32. Josh Bilicki

33. Garrett Smithley

34. Joey Gase

35. Quin Houff

36. John Hunter Nemechek

37. Timmy Hill

38. Ryan Preece

Points standings

1. Kevin Harvick, 675 points

2. Brad Keselowski, 587

3. Ryan Blaney, 580

4. Chase Elliott, 575

5. Joey Logano, 564

6. Denny Hamlin, 553

7. Martin Truex Jr., 543

8. Aric Almirola, 504

9. Alex Bowman, 498

10. Kurt Busch, 492

11. Kyle Busch, 477

12. Matt DiBenedetto, 456

13. Clint Bowyer, 435

14. William Byron, 418

15. Jimmie Johnson, 412

16. Austin Dillon, 388

17. Tyler Reddick, 371

18. Erik Jones, 370

19. Bubba Wallace, 328

20. Cole Custer, 321

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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