FONTANA, Calif. – Kyle Busch was looking for his 200th NASCAR National series victory on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, but Cole Custer had other ideas.
Custer took the lead during a late-race restart and pulled away from Busch over the final 15 laps to earn his first NASCAR Xfinity Series triumph of the season in the Production Alliance Group 300, denying Busch his 200th victory in the process.
“This means to ton. To win here, at home in Southern California – I grew up racing in San Bernardino and Irwindale,” said Custer, who hails from nearby Ladera Ranch, Calif. “It means a ton. To come back here. I can’t thank the Thompson Pipe group enough. I wouldn’t be racing without what their family did for me. Haas Automation is a local company also. It was such a huge race for us. Everybody, it is a home town race for our whole team. I am pretty pumped up.”
Busch dominated the race, leading a race-high 98 laps, but things changed dramatically after a caution for a spin by Austin Cindric on lap 111. Busch led the field down pit road, his crew struggled to get the right-rear tire changed on his Toyota Supra and he lost the lead.
To make matters worse, NASCAR penalized the No. 18 team for an uncontrolled tire, dropping him outside of the top 10 for the restart with 33 laps left. At the front of the field Christopher Bell found himself in the lead with Custer lined up in second.
Custer quickly moved to the point after the restart, dispatching Bell to take the lead with 31 circuits left. Busch was also on the move, slicing and dicing his way through the field. He made it to sixth with 27 laps left and one lap later the caution flag waved for fifth-place Brandon Jones, who spun and nearly collected Ryan Preece in the process.
That set up the final round of pit stops, with Custer leading the field down pit road. Bell was the first off pit road ahead of Justin Allgaier, Custer and Busch. Noah Gragson and Michael Annett stayed on track to inherit the top-two spots.
The final restart came with 20 laps left and Custer and Busch each got to work. Bell quickly moved to the point, but the move was only temporary as Custer quickly dispatched him to reclaim his place at the front.
Behind him Busch was working hard to get caught up. With 15 laps left he dispatched Bell to take second, but Custer had already moved out to a one second lead. Busch tried to close that gap, but Custer’s lead continued to grow until the checkered flag waved. Custer would beat Busch to the line by more than two seconds.
“To start the year off with a new a crew chief in Mike (Shiplett, a new engineer in Davin (Restivo), they just did a great job coming over here,” Custer said. “We’ve been frustrated with ourselves. We wanted to run better than fourth, top-five. Today we accomplished that. We had a great car.”
Busch said his car lacked grip during the final run, making it that much harder for him to track down Custer in the closing laps.
“Lack of grip there at the end,” Busch lamented. “We just didn’t have the speed we needed with the 00 (Custer). I think they said I could match his lap times, but earlier in the day we were a tenth or two tenths better then some of the guys and there at the end we weren’t.
“Is what it is I guess.”
Busch will now attempt to earn his 200th NASCAR National series victory, which would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty for most all-time among NASCAR’s three National divisions, during Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Bell finished third and was followed by polesitter Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. Cindric, Jones and Preece all recovered from their late-race mishaps to fill positions six through eight. Allgaier and Justin Haley completed the top-10.
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