With some of the top drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series battling it out for the lead on a restart with two laps to go in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, it was a rookie — Cole Custer — who emerged with the lead and ultimately the victory.
Custer, driving in just his 20th Cup race and his first on the circuit at the Kentucky 1.5-mile oval, beat out previous series champions Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick on the final restart to get his first Cup victory.
“Our car was so good.” Custer, who became the first rookie to win in Cup since 2016, told the Fox broadcast after getting out of his car. “Obviously it wasn’t the easiest track to pass on so we were kind of stuck back there (for much of the race) but that was the best car I’ve ever driven in my life.
“I mean, Gene (Haas, the team’s co-owner), I can’t say how thankful I am for him taking a shot on me.”
The 22-year-old’s best career finish before Sunday was fifth, which he got a week ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It was definitely not the start of the year we wanted,” Custer said. “Definitely way off in some places. Unbelievable car.”
Truex, of Joe Gibbs Racing, finished second, .271 seconds behind.
“At the end there,” Truex said, “just a little bit of bad luck losing the lead to (Ryan) Blaney on that first restart (with 30 laps to go) by a couple of thousandths and then to the 4 (Harvick) when the (final) caution came out — we were side by side. That’s kind of the way these things go some times.
“Super-fast race car and I feel we’re back in the game now,” said Truex, who was, for him, pretty average over the previous five races with no top fives, two top 10s and an average finish of just better than 18th.
Matt DiBenedetto, driving in his first season with the famed Wood Brothers Racing team, finished third.
Harvick, Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate who restarted from the No. 1 position with two to go, was fourth.
“We were in position to win, you know,” Harvick said. “Made it through turns 1 and 2 and then Martin just misjudged on the backstretch and kind of got into the back of us and I had to check up and the next thing I know I’m four wide on the front straightaway and then the 12 (Blaney) hit the drain (on the apron) went back up the race track.”
Harvick’s bad luck turned into good luck for Custer.
“To get to victory lane in your rookie year is a big deal,” Harvick said. “Really happy for Gene and everybody at Haas Automation and especially Cole. He works really hard.”
Another former series champion, Kurt Busch, was fifth.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spent last weekend watching the race at Indy on television after testing positive for COVID-19. It marked the first time in his 666-race career that he missed a start. But during the ensuing week, he twice tested negative and was back in his Hendrick Motorsports Camaro.
Johnson, the winner of 83 Cup races, ran in the top five for much of the final stage at Kentucky and was running third when he was spun from behind by Brad Keselowski on a restart with 19 laps to go. He finished 18th.
Defending series champion Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing started from the pole but lost the lead to Aric Almirola on Lap 10. He never could get the lead back and ended up finishing 21st. The winner of 56 Cup races in his career has yet to win in 2020. Almirola, who led a race-high 128 laps and won the first stage, finished eighth.
Keselowski won Stage 2.
Two former winners at Kentucky — Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth — started the race from the rear of the field because of failing pre-race inspection twice.
–Field Level Media