SPARTA, Ky. – Cole Custer converted a dominant second-half performance into his series-leading fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series win of the season Friday night at Kentucky Speedway.
Custer wasn’t the fastest man during the first two stages of the 200-lap race, but he was lights out when it counted. The Ladera Ranch, Calif., native led 87 of the final 90 circuits en route to victory after passing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe for the top spot.
From there, it was no contest, as the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford cruised to the checkered flag.
“This one just goes to my team. The car was unbelievable at the end,” said Custer. “They knew exactly what to do with it when the track changed and I was just lucky to drive it there at the end. I can’t thank Gene Haas and everybody at Haas Automation enough. You don’t get cars like that very often.”
The only nervous moment in a caution-free final stage came following Custer’s last pit stop with 51 to go, when rival Christopher Bell erased a 2.7-second deficit by pitting two laps sooner than Custer did.
But Custer used a fast race car to power back away from Bell, slowly and steadily opening up his leading margin to as much as three seconds before crossing the finish line in front by 1.651 seconds in the end.
Friday’s win continues a career season for Custer, who also took the lead in the playoff point tally, with 31 markers banked to Bell’s 30.
“It is pretty unbelievable to win once the last two years … and then this year to go out and win five. It’s a testament to our team,” Custer noted. “My guys made great adjustments throughout the night and knew exactly how the track was going to change. I just can’t thank them enough.”
Bell went virtually unchallenged through the first two 45-lap stages of the race, leading every lap in stage one and 70 of the first 90 overall in claiming his third stage sweep of the season.
However, the handling on Bell’s No. 20 Rheem Toyota went away in the second half of the race, while Custer’s car came to life down the home stretch.
That swing in momentum, combined with a slow pit stop during the second stage break that dropped Bell from the lead back to seventh, was enough to derail his momentum and prevent him from taking home the Crosley jukebox trophy from Kentucky’s victory lane on this night.
“I don’t know what happened. We just got worse … or maybe got too comfortable,” said Bell, who led 72 laps, second only to Custer’s 88 laps led. “We probably needed to free things up a little bit. It’s a bummer night, but our car was really fast and we got a couple more playoff points. Now we just need to work on a couple of things to get the last little bit we’re missing on these mile-and-a-half tracks.”
Tyler Reddick – the third member of the so-called Big Three – completed the top three finishers on Friday night, but he came home a whopping 12.808 seconds behind Custer’s winning car.
Daytona winner Michael Annett crossed fourth and Briscoe completed the top five as the last car on the lead lap. That set a new record for fewest lead-lap cars at the finish in a Kentucky Xfinity Series race.
Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Truex, Ryan Sieg and Justin Haley finished sixth through 10th, respectively. All of them were one lap down at the checkered flag.