Believe it! Cole Custer wins at Kentucky

Believe it! Cole Custer wins at Kentucky
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

At a track where only champions had won Cup races in the past, rookie Cole Custer claimed the victory at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.

As the Quaker State 400 ran into overtime, Matt DiBenedetto pushed Custer to the point on the high line.

The No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford cruised around Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney for the lead and ultimately the win.

“It’s unbelievable,” Custer said. “We had a great car all day, one of the best cars I’ve ever driven in my life. It was really hard to pass. It was hard to get to the front. Once we got there we took advantage of it.

“I just can’t thank everybody at the shop. That’s probably the best car I’ve ever driven in my life -- no lie or anything. I can’t thank Gene Haas enough and everybody at HaasTooling.com for taking a chance on me. I think the start of the year was not what we wanted, we were definitely far off at some places, but I think we’re starting to put it all together and I’m looking forward to it.”

Truex, DiBenedetto, Harvick and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five finishers.

"Just trying to get in line with 4, got into him a little bit,” Truex said. “Got outside of him because I screwed up and knew he was gonna run me up high. The 41 came with a big run and I didn't see him coming. Hell of a battle today.”

Aric Almirola dominated the first stage. He took the lead from polesitter Kyle Busch on Lap 10 and held on for the first stage win on Lap 80. Almirola led a career race-high 128 laps, but was shuffled into the field during green flag stops during Stage 2 on Lap 151.

Matt Kenseth, whose team knocked off the left-rear valve stem during his pit stop one lap earlier, spun on Lap 154.  Almirola recovered to seventh but never contended for the lead again.

Keselowski, who had yet to pit, had the lead and held on for the Stage 2 win with Ryan Blaney, Custer, Joey Logano, Truex, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, DiBenedetto and Erik Jones in tow.

Keselowski controlled the lead for the final stage restart on Lap 168. Truex passed him 13 laps later and held the point until he pitted Lap 220. The fifth caution was triggered 10 laps later after Brennan Poole tagged the wall. Truex cycled back to the lead on the restart followed by Blaney, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Harvick—but the cautions just kept coming.

John Hunter Nemechek ignited the sixth caution after spinning on Lap 244. As Truex battled Blaney at the point on the restart, Keselowski, who restarted fifth, got a run on third-place Jimmie Johnson. Johnson threw a late block on the No. 2 Ford and Keselowski tagged the No. 48 Chevy’s bumper for Caution 7.

“I don’t run people off the race track like that,” Keselowski said on the radio.

After running in the top 10 during most of the second half of the race, Johnson wound up 18th at the finish.

Blaney suffered throughout the race with wonky transmission but gained the lead from Truex before the race returned to green. That advantage, however, was short-lived as Harvick charged to the point. Truex refused to let the No. 4 Ford to steal the win. He was battling Harvick for the lead when Ryan Newman spun Kenseth in Turn 4 on Lap 261.

The race went into overtime with Harvick leading followed by Truex, Blaney, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Custer. As the cars rolled, Truex made contact with Harvick causing a tire rub. Custer saw his opportunity—and capitalized.

“I knew I just had to get to the top,” Custer said. “The top rolled pretty good and once I got past and I was like in third I was like, ‘I’ve just got to take a shot and do whatever I can here.’  And it ended up the 4 and the 19 got together a little bit and I was able to take advantage of it. 

“It was just an unbelievable car and I was able to take advantage of it.  I just can’t thank all my guys and everybody at SHR enough, and everybody at Roush Yates Engines -- just an absolutely amazing car.”

Blaney finished sixth followed by Christopher Bell, Almirola, Keselowski and Tyler Reddick.

Not only did Custer become the first rookie to win a Cup race since Chris Buescher at Pocono Raceway in 2016, he earned a spot in the NASCAR Cup All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Wednesday.

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” Custer said. “I get the neon lights under the car now and everything. Hopefully, I even make it to Bristol because I’m gonna party pretty good. 

“This is unbelievable -- first win.  I didn’t think we were gonna come here and win.  I was looking for a solid run -- pretty unbelievable.”

Harvick extended his lead in the standings to 88 points over Keselowski.

 

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