HOMESTEAD, Fla. – After one of the most memorable battles in the history of the elimination-playoff era, Cole Custer came up one spot short of the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship Saturday night.
With a spirited drive at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Custer rallied back from a loose wheel that put him a lap down during the second stage of the Ford EcoBoost 300, roaring into contention in the waning moments.
However, he ended up second to race winner and champion Tyler Reddick for the second year in a row.
Custer actually raced his way back onto the lead lap after his lap-61 pit stop, passing stage two winner Austin Cindric down the backstretch moments before a stage-ending caution froze the field.
That set the stage for his furious charge back to the front, with Custer restarting 14th for the final stage and wasting no time racing through traffic.
In less than 20 laps, Custer had moved forward 11 spots to third, and he never left the top three again with the exception of the final round of green-flag pit service.
After those stops inside of 40 to go, Custer dispatched Christopher Bell for the race lead on lap 167 and appeared to have just enough to keep Reddick at bay, despite running the middle groove at the time.
But when Reddick climbed the banking all the way to the wall, Custer attempted to do the same in an attempt to match lap times with the No. 2, and he just couldn’t quite replicate what Reddick was capable of.
In the end, Reddick traded slide jobs with Custer for a lap and a half before finally seizing the point for good with 19 to go, driving away and forcing Custer to settle for runner-up honors.
Custer ended up being sucked into the wall with nine laps left, a mistake that ended any hope he had at making one final rally as it dropped him more than two seconds adrift of Reddick down the stretch.
Upon climbing from his car, Custer was complimentary of Reddick’s skills at running the extreme high line, a skill that has rewarded Reddick with back-to-back titles and left Custer searching for answers.
“Tyler can just rip the fence here. I don’t know,” Custer lamented when asked what more he could have done. “I could match his lap time there at the end, but he was just a tick better (to) where he could be on my bumper when he was behind me and do a slide job, and I could keep up with him but didn’t have quite what I needed.
“There at the end, I felt like I needed to find a way to close the gap,” he added. “I was just three car lengths back the whole time, so I knew I needed to try and figure out a way to close the gap, and I just got in the fence a little bit. It’s been a great year, and we have a lot to hang our hats on. It sucks running second again, but we can still stay positive about how great of a year we had.”
During his extended media obligations, Custer circled back to his rally to get back on the lead lap, noting it as “pivotal” in his title quest.
Without it, he said, he might not have even had a chance at Reddick at the end.
“That was pretty huge for sure. If we were a lap down there or even had to take the wave‑around, we’d have probably still gotten up there, I guess, but it definitely would have made our day a lot harder,” Custer noted. “We were up there a lot faster and got to adjust on our car more and stuff like that because we got the lap back the hard way, I do know that. We were rewarded for that effort.
“It definitely would have made our day a much bigger challenge if we didn’t get it back at that point, so it was for sure a key point in our race.”
Custer ended his year Saturday night with seven wins, 17 top fives and 24 top 10s in 33 races, with his second-place points finish tying his career-best Xfinity Series effort from the 2018 season.
The statistical improvement, however, earned Custer a promotion to the NASCAR Cup Series for 2020, where he’ll do battle with Reddick and Bell for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors at the sport’s top level.
Custer admitted there wasn’t one specific area where his improvement was centralized, but that he’s looking forward to continuing his growth despite missing out on his ultimate goal this year.
“I think it’s been a little bit of everything, honestly,” he explained. “I think Mike (Shiplett, crew chief) brought a lot of experience this year in what he wanted to do with the car and what worked and what didn’t. So, when I’d say something stupid during practice, he’d usually know what to do with the car.
“I think I worked traffic probably a little bit better this year, just through gaining experience and knowing how I wanted to work my line and everything coming to the race track, so it’s just a combination of everything, honestly,” he added. “I don’t think you can really pinpoint one thing.
“It’s definitely been a cool year. I think we all (himself, Reddick and Bell) made each other better.”