Why Cole Custer’s ‘unimaginable’ NASCAR win at Kentucky is bad for Jimmie Johnson

Alex Andrejev
Miami Herald

Cole Custer reacted like everyone else to his win at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday evening.

“I’m surprised,” Custer said with a laugh after his first post-race celebration in NASCAR’s top series.

The 22-year-old Cup rookie raced his way into Wednesday’s All-Star Race, as well as the 2020 postseason, by driving the outer lane of the 1.5-mile tri-oval after a late-lap caution forced a two-lap shootout through the checkered flag.

“Honestly, I just knew I had to get to the top,” Custer said. “I knew I didn’t want to get put three‑wide. My spotter, Andy Houston, did a great job. He kept me in the right spots and everything.”

Custer said he raced from 12th place to sixth by running the top lane on earlier restarts. The same strategy allowed him to make a four-wide pass of previous 2020 race winners Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney in the final seconds of the race. He finished just ahead of Truex Jr. in second place.

Despite Custer’s recent success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the No. 41 driver finished in fifth place the previous weekend, it was an unexpected victory. He was the first rookie to win in the premier series in four years.

“It’s just a balancing,” Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Mike Shiplett said after the race. “You got to get everything right between the setup, the weather, the track, the PJ1 that they put down, how long tires are going to last, not last.”

“We put everything together,” Shiplett said. “We were there to make a challenge for it at the end and it worked out.”

Custer, who started in 29th place Sunday, described his Ford Mustang as “the best car (he’s) driven in a long time.”

The timing couldn’t have been any better for the rookie — or for any driver, really. With just nine races now remaining in the regular season and the All-Star race this Wednesday at Bristol Motor Speedway, a win was imperative.

Race winners from last season and this season have a locked-in spot for the non-points All-Star race, as well as past All-Star Race winners. (The three stage winners from the All-Star Open race on Wednesday and the winner of a fan vote round out that lineup.)

Six of the drivers locked-in for Wednesday, however, have not won a race this season; Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, Justin Haley, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Looking ahead to the playoffs in September, Custer’s win has a lot more implications for the drivers without 2020 race wins, especially for Johnson.

Only 16 drivers are granted a postseason berth, and the nine drivers with a race win so far this year are guaranteed a spot. Custer could be immediately eliminated during playoffs. He could win the whole thing. The point is he’s in now and taking up another spot, which puts the pressure on those who haven’t yet won a race this season, especially for drivers on the fringe in points like Johnson.

The No. 48 driver was forced to miss last weekend’s race at Indy due to a positive COVID-19 test, and he subsequently dropped two positions in points standings to 15th. After Sunday’s race and Custer’s win, Johnson (ranked 15th in points) would fill out the 16th place playoff spot.

Johnson made a promising run to third place in the final stage at Kentucky, but was spun out off a hit from Brad Keselowksi with less than 20 laps left. Johnson finished in 18th.

Keselowksi later said the contact was unavoidable. Johnson said he won’t forget.

“I thought today was our day,” Johnson wrote on Twitter after the race. “@DanielsCliff & the @allyracing boys brought me a great car.”

He punctuated the tweet with a cursing face emoji.

“I do look forward to my next restart behind @keselowski though.”

Although Johnson still has a 24-point lead over Austin Dillon behind him on the points ladder, the problem for him comes if another driver with fewer points snatches a win during this final stretch of regular-season races.

Custer proved that’s entirely possible. He’s ranked 20th in points event after his win. Without any practice or qualifying laps, this season is increasingly about having the right car and the right conditions, and more than anything, Sunday’s race proved just how formidable the 2020 rookie class is.

Custer went to Victory Lane, but other Cup rookies Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick finished in seventh and tenth place, ahead of Johnson, Busch and Jones. The biggest threat to Johnson reaching the playoffs in his retirement season could be a driver in his first season. Both Reddick and Bell have put together multiple top-10s this season. Reddick sits just behind Dillon in points.

“It’s just unbelievable to be in this situation right now,” Custer said after his win. “Coming into this, you’re just trying to gain respect and trying to fit in almost, trying to kind of just earn the respect of the guys around you, the drivers out there.”

Custer earned more than respect with the win. He won a very real, very tangible post-season berth.

“To come out of this with a win, I mean, just unimaginable.”

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