SPRTA, KY — Cole Custer benefitted from a wild late race restart to earn his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory on Sunday afternoon from the Kentucky Speedway. Custer, has won a NASCAR Xfinity Series race here in the past, but he’s now 1-for-1 in the Cup Series in earning the victory in the Quaker State 400 and becoming the first rookie to win in NASCAR’s premiere series in nearly four years.
Custer, had a great launch on the final restart with three to go, but he didn’t fully get in position to win until Ryan Blaney made it three wide in Turn 4 coming to the white flag. Blaney, hit the drain on the apron at the start finish line and skated back up onto the 1.5-mile track out of control and got into Kevin Harvick as Harvick was on the inside of Martin Truex Jr. as a result.
Custer, was on the outside of the four wide sandwich and the contact between the bottom three allowed the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to prevail in his No. 41 Ford.
The win not only puts Custer into Wednesday night’s All-Star race but also into the playoffs this fall as well.
Custer, finished fifth last Sunday in the Brickyard 400 and is stacking up good finishes now.
Truex Jr. looked like the car to beat over the second half of this race as he led 57 laps in total but had to settle for second in his No. 19 Toyota. He trailed Custer by .271-seconds at the finish which was the fourth closest finish in the 10 year history of the event. It was Truex’s third top two finish in his last four Kentucky starts overall.
Matt DiBenedetto had a fast No. 21 Ford in finishing fourth and ninth respectively in the two stages and coming home third.
Harvick, settled for fourth with his No. 4 Ford smoking the entire way around the final lap while last year’s winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top five on Sunday.
Here are my main takeaways.
“We Were Just Meant To Be 2nd” Says Truex
Martin Truex Jr. quite honestly has supplanted Kyle Busch as the top driver at the Kentucky Speedway now. Truex, won this race in back-to-back years (2017, 2018) and after being pedestrian a year ago, finished second on Sunday for his third top two finish in his last four Kentucky starts.
What he did in this year’s Quaker State 400 though, well it was nothing short of impressive.
He was one of just two cars to fail pre race inspection twice. That meant he had to give up his top 10 starting position to go to the back in a track that’s just so difficult to pass on. Eight of the past nine years have seen the race winner come from a top 10 starting spot in fact.
Still, Truex quickly found his way to the front on a day drivers were complaining about not being able to pass. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished 24th in Stage 1 but was up to fifth by the end of Stage 2. He took over the lead on Lap 181 and would lead 57 laps towards the end of the race but had to settle for runner-up.
If not for late race contact with Kevin Harvick, Truex may have won. He was left fuming mad as Ryan Blaney narrowly got past him for the lead on a late race restart but a caution flag flew after. He thought he should still be in the lead but timing and scoring said otherwise.
That left him without the lane choice on restarts. Luckily, he was able to come back and challenge Kevin Harvick for the lead on the next run and was side-by-side again with him before a caution flag flew for Matt Kenseth on Lap 260.
That set up a three lap shootout in which Truex was there with Harvick again for the win. But, Ryan Blaney made it three-wide exiting Turn 4 and slipped up on the apron when he hit the drain. That forced him into Harvick which Harvick got into Truex, which allowed Cole Custer by for the win.
Truex, led 46 laps in the 2016 race. He swept both stages in his wins in 2017 and 2018 after leading 152 and 174 laps respectively. Now, he leads 57 more.
“I feel like we’re back,” Truex continued.
This was his first top five finish since his win at Martinsville last month but his third top 10 over the last four races run though too.
DiBenedetto Beaming With Confidence
Matt DiBenedetto has been going for stage points lately. He knows his car is fast enough to be a playoff car and he just needs to accumulate enough points for the rest of the regular season in order to make the postseason for the first time of his career.
You can see the blueprint that they’re taking. They’ve elected for stage points at Pocono and Indy and throwing out a chance at a win. On Sunday, he netted eight more stage points in the Quaker State 400 which keeps moving him up.
On a 1.5-mile track though, stage points can factor into a good finish as well. DiBenedetto, brought his No. 21 Ford home third at the Kentucky Speedway to not only salvage a great day on points, but a great finish too.
The Wood Brothers driver has two top six finishes in his last three starts on the season and two top fives now. This is what he calls the most confident he’s ever been in a Cup car.
Lap 228 Caution Changed This Outcome
Cole Custer had just pitted. William Byron, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch hadn’t hit pit lane for the final time yet. If this sequence cycles through, Martin Truex Jr. was going to have a 5+ second lead over Ryan Blaney. Those aforementioned six cars would likely fall towards the end of the lead lap, or even a lap down.
But, debris was on the front stretch and a caution flew. That allowed them to remain up front and change the outcome of how this race ended.
Byron, finished 11th. Bell was seventh. Harvick, wasn’t a factor all day and he somehow managed a fourth place run. Custer, ended up winning.
The first 227 laps was tough to pass. We saw just four cautions through that period. That caution set up a wild ending with as many cautions in the final 39 laps as we saw for the first 227 circuits ran around the 1.5-mile track.
That allowed those guys that didn’t pit before the caution flew on Lap 228 to stay up front and not have to get lost on a long green flag run to the finish.
Kyle Busch’s Winless Streak Extends
Kyle Busch had a quiet yet reserved start to the 2020 season. Busch, crashed out in Daytona but was a top three finisher in the final two races before the coronavirus break. Even after the 70 day layoff, he was still a top five finisher. Notice, I keep using the word “finisher” not car.
Between Fontana and Atlanta, Busch had six top four finishes, three of which runner-ups even, in an eight race span. While the finishes were there in his No. 18 Toyota, the speed wasn’t.
As we near the midway mark of the season, it’s still not there.
Busch, still hasn’t won in 2020. The defending Cup Series champion’s last win came at Homestead last November. If you go back to a full year ago, he has just one win during this time frame.
What’s concerning is, Busch isn’t vying for wins at all. Yes, some of his finishes have been great, but that’s due to others mistakes. Busch, had no stage wins in 2020. He has no playoff points. He’s only led 139 laps all year and 100 of those were at Bristol at the end of May.
The most troublesome is, I expected his winless streak to end over the last four race stretch. He had two shots at Pocono, one at Indy and one Sunday in Kentucky.
Busch, came to Pocono a three time winner in his last five starts there. He went to Indy having won there back-to-back (2015, 2016) and typically always in contention at the Brickyard. Then, it was to the Kentucky Speedway where Busch had three straight top five finishes including six in his last seven tries. He was runner-up last year to his brother Kurt. He had three top two finishes in his last six years.
Factor in this and giving him the pole via a draw for the Quaker State 400 and it would be interesting to what he could do with clean air.
Unfortunately, he didn’t do much. He led nine laps early then was passed. From there, he faded further into oblivion. Busch, was only 13th in Stage 1, 14th in Stage 2 and felt his car was broken from there on out. He’d limp home a disappointing 21st.
With his best tracks behind him, what makes us think that this winless streak will end any time soon?
Where Did Hendrick’s Speed Go?
The Hendrick Motorsports camp was the talk of the town for the early portion of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. They vastly improved in the speed department and their peers were taking notice.
From Daytona until Bristol in late May, HMS drivers had won 10 of the first 19 stages. At that part, Chase Elliott had the most speed as he could have easily won four of five straight races. Alex Bowman was next best with a top five car early on.
Unfortunately, their speed is gone.
HMS hasn’t won a stage since Jimmie Johnson’s stage win in Martinsville. That’s their lone stage win over the last 16 stages.
You can tell everyone else has caught up and there’s really no good reason as to why. When this resumption of the season began back in May, everyone said that HMS wouldn’t fade. Their speed was a byproduct of the of the changes Chevrolet was able to make to their cars.
See, the Toyota and Ford drivers said that this Camaro was made for this racing package. They finally had a chance to figure it out and would set sail on them.
Then, they started lacking.
Bowman, hasn’t had a top five finish since the first race back to racing on May 17 (0 in last 12). He was 19th on Sunday.
Elliott, has one top five in his last five starts. He finished 23rd on Sunday.
William Byron hasn’t had a top five all year while Jimmie Johnson has just two top fives. Johnson, was leading the HMS charge before being spun by Brad Keselowski while running in the top five on Lap 248.
Toyota Cars Struggle Too
Martin Truex Jr. came from the back to finish second in his No. 19 Toyota, but the rest of the camp was no where to be found on Sunday at the Kentucky Speedway. Where Truex came forward, his teammates went backwards.
Kyle Busch started on the pole and led the first nine laps but his car was junk. He finished 21st in his No. 18 Toyota. It was his worst career Kentucky finish. He was only 13th and 14th respectively in the two stages as well.
Denny Hamlin surprisingly struggled too. He was 24th and 17th in the two stages run on Sunday and only finished 12th.
Erik Jones as a non factor all race being 18th and 10th in Stage 1 and 2 respectively and would finish 22nd.
With Toyota winning three of the last five at Kentucky, Sunday’s performance, or lackthereof, was shocking to me.
Jones The Biggest Loser Of It All On Sunday
Erik Jones is in a contract year. He’d like to be back with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. Both sides are trying to work something out. But, Jones was on the playoff bubble last year and it took his win in the Southern 500 to get a one-year contract extension.
When you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, barely getting into the playoffs isn’t good enough. Then, factor in bowing out in the opening round of the playoffs in his first two season there, well that will get you even more scrutinized.
Throw in his teammates winning 18 of the 36 races run a year ago and taking three of the spots into the Championship 4 and you get a lot of pressure on the Michigan native in 2020.
With Christopher Bell needing to eventually work is way over to JGR in the future and the other three looking like they’ll be in place for 2021, is Jones on his way out?
Success on the track will make it hard to replace him.
Unfortunately, he’s not having much of it again. He’s winless to start the season. So is his teammate Kyle Busch, but Busch also won the championship last year and is +89 in the playoff standings.
Jones, remains on the outside looking in as we’re past the halfway mark of the regular season. With Cole Custer stealing a win on Sunday at the Kentucky Speedway, Jones is 19th in the standings, -42.
He said a few weeks ago that he’s not a 16th place car. Well, he’s not. He’s had a top five in two of his last five starts. But, he’s not finishing races off either.
This was supposed to be the time Jones got onto the good side of the playoff standings. He was only a handful of points out coming into Sunday’s race. He leaves over 40 out. He had three straight top seven finishes here including a third place run last year.
He leaves with a 22nd place result and a potential of missing the playoffs all together if he doesn’t win over the next month.
Custer’s win stole a potential spot from Jones. He would be 18 points out right now.
Almirola Dominates Early, Car Fades At Halfway On
Aric Almirola looked like he was going to dominate Sunday’s Quaker State 400. How good was he? He entered Sunday’s race without ever leading a lap at Kentucky before. He leaves seventh on the all-time lap leaders chart.
Almirola, passed Kyle Busch for the top spot on Lap 9 and would lead the next 128 laps. He was as good as anyone. No one was even in his zip code at the Kentucky Speedway. It was a race for second.
Unfortunately, the second half of the race came and it all changed.
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. picked up speed and Almirola faded. He went from winning Stage 1 to finishing 15th in Stage 2. He’d only finish eighth in his No. 10 Ford in the end for his second eighth place finish in three years here.
But, the momentum is still there. Almirola may have seen his five race streak of consecutive top five finishes end, but a top 10 gives him six straight heading into the All-Star race on Wednesday night.
Bell Finally Makes It To Top 24 In Owners Points
Ever wondered why Christopher Bell started so far back? Well, it’s because he couldn’t get into the top 24 of the owners points. Bell, had the worst luck of the draw as over half of the times he was starting in the worst possible row from the blind draw. It happened again for Sunday’s Quaker State 400.
See, he has been fighting to get to 24th. Once he could get there, he could start in spots 13th-24th, not back in 35th or 36th like he’s been coming from.
Well, he finally did it.
Bell, was pedestrian for much of the day on Sunday in Kentucky in being 21st and 19th respectively in the two stages. But, a late race pit gamble to run the final sequence long paid off. A caution came out while he was in the top five and he had yet to pit. He was able to pit and stay in the top 10 and it worked in his favor to earn a seventh place result.
Bell, passes the two Front Row Motorsports teammates in the standings and is now 24th. He’s 11 points clear of fellow rookie John Hunter Nemechek for 24th and knows he will have a much better starting spot next Sunday in Texas.
Playoff Wildcard Battle Heats Up
Cole Custer’s shock win on Sunday has really turned the playoff standings around. He’s 20th in the standings, but a win guarantees him a playoff spot. That takes a wildcard spot away essentially.
Instead of Austin Dillon leading his Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick by 17 points for the final spot, Dillon trails Jimmie Johnson now by 24. Johnson, is only behind 15th place William Byron by six markers.
This is going to be a wild ending to the regular season, especially since we race twice at Daytona, once of the ROVAL and the other on the high banked superspeedway.
Johnson and Byron are teammates and going to be an intense battle for that last spot. The RCR teammates want a piece of that and need to make up big points now especially since Reddick is now -41.
The biggest loser of all of this is Erik Jones. He went from a chance of getting his way in to -42.
Passing Tough On Sunday
I thought that we’d have one of the better Quaker State 400’s that we’ve ever seen on Sunday. Without any practice to run and a day time race when we normally race at night here, shouldn’t the action have picked up?
Instead, it was tough sledding. Even with a traction compound, no one dared to make many moves around the 1.5-mile track.
We saw just three passes of the lead all race until the wild ending that saw countless maneuvers that made the exhilarating finish overshadow a tough day of racing on Sunday.
Quaker State 400 Results
- 41 Custer R
- 19 Truex Jr.
- 21 DiBenedetto
- 4 Harvick
- 1 KuBusch
- 12 Blaney
- 95 Bell R
- 10 Almirola
- 2 Keselowski
- 8 Reddick R
- 24 Byron
- 11 Hamlin
- 3 ADillon
- 14 Bowyer
- 22 Logano
- 13 TDillon
- 6 Newman
- 48 Johnson
- 88 Bowman
- 17 Buescher
- 18 KyBusch
- 20 Jones
- 9 Elliott
- 34 McDowell
- 42 Kenseth
- 96 Suarez
- 43 Wallace Jr. -2
- 32 LaJoie -3
- 47 Stenhouse Jr. -3
- 27 Yeley -7
- 15 Poole R -8
- 77 Bilicki -10
- 53 Smithley -10
- 51 Gase -10
- 00 Houff R -12
- 38 Nemechek R -19
- 66 Hill OUT
- 37 Preece OUT