For the first time, a rookie won at Kentucky Speedway. Cole Custer took the checkered flag in a late-lap shootout, swiping first place from none other than his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and current NASCAR points leader Kevin Harvick and two-time Kentucky race winner Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. finished in second place and Matt DiBenedetto finished in third. Harvick, who has never won at the speedway despite his 53 career wins overall, finished in fourth.
After weaving past 2020 race winners Harvick, Truex, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, who led in that order off the final restart, Custer zoomed from sixth place to first through the field of battling winning drivers with two laps to go. Custer ran the outside lane through the finish, then emerged from his No. 41 car and into the arms of his teammates, who lifted the rookie into the air.
“Cole you are the man!” his teammates said over their radio. “Can you believe it?”
The finish looked like it could have gone to any one of the previous race winners. Harvick, for example, moved into first after running in 19th place at Lap 208. Off a restart with 13 laps left, the field went three-wide between Harvick, Truex and Blaney, then another caution came out for a Matt Kenseth spin.
Then it was a fight to the finish, in which Custer put himself on the map and into Wednesday’s NASCAR All-Star Race, as well as the 2020 playoffs.
Penske holds strong
Despite the late cautions, most of the race was about how cars unloaded off the truck and hit the track. The early emphasis moved away from pit strategy and pure luck and towards teams getting their equipment right from the green flag.
And Team Penske got it right across the board. Despite an early gear-shift issue for Blaney, the No. 12 driver ran in the top five to close the first two stages. Blaney’s team gave him a bungee cord during the race to help hold the shifter, but Blaney was unable to attach it, so he held the shifter through Turns 1 and 2, driving with one hand through those turns for the remainder of the race.
His teammate Keselowski utilized the first unforced caution to his advantage. Before the Stage 2 finish, Keselowski pitted last from the lead lap late in Stage 2. The timing put Keselowski in first off the restart after a caution was called for a spin by Kenseth (his first of two).
When the race went green again, Keselowski maintained his lead over teammate Blaney to close Stage 2 with a win. The three-time Kentucky race winner held onto the lead into the final stage, but was eventually passed by Truex Jr. in the final stage.
Other Penske driver Joey Logano finished third and fourth, respectively, in the first two stages, and Wood Brothers Racing driver DiBenedetto certainly had Kentucky mojo (Wood Brothers is a Penske affiliate). DiBenedetto finished in the top-10 in the first two stages, in fourth and ninth respectively, before his season-best third place finish at the flag, in which he raced on the outside lane past Blaney in the final seconds.
Martin Truex Jr. almost makes it three at Kentucky
Joe Gibbs Racing names Kyle Busch, a two-time Kentucky winner, and three-time 2020 race winner Denny Hamlin (who’s never won at Kentucky) were largely missing from the conversation. Both drivers said on their team radios they were experiencing equipment issues. Busch finished 21st and Hamlin finished 12th.
However, teammate Truex looked nearly flawless, leading the second-most laps of the race until he was passed by Harvick late. Truex couldn’t hold onto the lead as the field went four-wide between Truex, Harvick, Blaney and Custer heading into the final lap. Custer edged just ahead of him on the final straightaway.
“Pretty wild restarts at the end,” Truex said. “Unfortunate for us to lose the lead there twice with the caution coming at the wrong time, but that’s just part of the deal. How these things go. Obviously proud of the run today.”
“Proud of the effort and I know some wins are coming now,” Truex added.
Tough break for seven-time
While there wasn’t a clear pattern to the finishing order by team, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returned to the speedway firing on all cylinders. Johnson missed last weekend’s race at Indy after testing positive for COVID-19. He raced from a 20th place starting position to eleventh place at the end of Stage 1, then eighth place to close stage two.
Johnson then posted the fastest lap of the race at 181.9 miles per hour to move into third place from ninth off one of the final restarts. But when another late-lap caution came out, Johnson in third, was tapped on the tail by Keselowski and spun out, pushing him to the bottom-20. Johnson finishing in 18th.
Stewart-Haas Racing won, but not who we expected
Before Sunday’s race, SHR driver Aric Almirola said he was going for a win. After five top-five finishes in a row, the No. 10 driver said he wanted to secure his playoff spot with a Kentucky victory. He didn’t quite get that, but he still put forth one of his best performances of the season with a Stage 1 victory and the most laps led, 128 of 267 laps, which was a personal and race best. He finished in eighth.
“We made our presence known today,” Almirola said in a tweet after the race. “Sixth top-10 in a row. Not quite the result I wanted but still a lot to be proud of.”
His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick, however, was the unexpected late-race contender. And Custer was the unexpected late-race winner.
Martin Truex Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
John Hunter Nemechek