NASCAR Cup Series rookie Cole Custer pulled off a daring four-wide pass for the lead on the final lap to earn the victory in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway – the first rookie to win in NASCAR’s premier series in four years.
Custer, who restarted fifth on a restart with two laps to go, made his way forward - daring to go high on track to the outside of a three-wide challenge for the lead among Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick. The 22-year old Custer held the high line and was able to get around the three veterans - ultimately holding off the 2017 series champion Truex – a two-time former Kentucky winner – by a mere .271-seconds to earn the victory.
The Californian’s five laps led Sunday (four early in the race and then the final lap) were the first laps Custer had ever led in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Matt DiBenedetto, Harvick and 2019 Kentucky winner Kurt Busch finished third, fourth and fifth. Blaney, rookie Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski and rookie Tyler Reddick rounded out the Top-10. It’s the first time in NASCAR history three rookies have finished in the Top-10 in a race.
“We were so good all day, our car was so good," a beaming Custer said after climbing out of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford on the front stretch and sharing hugs and high-fives with his Stewart-Haas Racing crew members.
“Obviously it wasn’t the easiest track to pass on so we were kind of stuck back there, but that was the best car I’ve ever driven in my life."
It was certainly a dramatic conclusion to a race that featured a dominant Almirola early on. He led a race best 128 of the 267 laps – the most laps led in a race ever for the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Almirola won the opening stage, ahead of Chase Elliott and Joey Logano. Keselowski won the second stage over Blaney and Custer. Caution flags were frequent in the closing laps and the pace of the race became a lot more intense.
Truex, who started last in the 38-car field after an issue in pre-race inspection, made his bold move forward in the final 100 laps. He took the lead for the first time with 94 laps remaining and his 57 laps out front were second only to Almirola as kept the field honest in the closing stage.
Four cautions in the final 35 laps, however, created drama on each restart with Blaney, Truex and Harvick contending for the lead. That’s exactly when Custer made his four-wide move at the end to earn the biggest win of his young life.
Even more impressive is that these first-year NASCAR Cup Series drivers were able to excel with no practice or qualifying sessions – all precautions NASCAR has instituted since retuning to competition following the COVID-19 break in action.
“It’s not easy," Custer allowed. “You’ve got to kind of adapt as much as you can. I think we’ve gotten better and better at that. It’s just unbelieveable. I didn’t think we were coming here and going to win. And now we’re gonna be in the All-Star Race.
“It’s unbelievable. We had a great car all day, one of the best cars I’ve ever driven in my life. It was hard to get to the front. Once we got there, we took advantage of it and I just can’t thank everybody at the [Stewart-Haas Racing] shop."
“I think the start of the year was not what we wanted,’’ Custer continued. “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."
Although obviously, disappointed not to win, Custer’s SHR teammate Harvick was quick to praise his young teammate.
“We were in position to win, you know," Harvick said. “Made it through turns one and two, Martin just misjudged on the backstretch and got into us and I had to check up. Next thing I know we were four wide on the front straightaway and then the 12 [Blaney) hit the drain and went back up race track.
“Just congratulations to Cole Custer," Harvick said. “Last week he was a big part of our win [at Indianapolis]. To get to victory lane in your rookie year is a big deal. I’m really happy for Gene [Haas] and everyone at [Haas Automation] and especially for Cole. He works really hard."
Harvick holds an 88-point advantage over Keselowski in the championship standings as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway on July 19 for the next points race. The series will compete in the exhibition All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Wednesday.