HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Cole Custer made a big statement to the rest of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway: the road to the title goes through him.
Custer swept through qualifying for the Ford EcoBoost 300, topping all three knockout rounds en route to his series-leading sixth pole of the season and third on a 1.5-mile oval. He turned a lap of 32.609 seconds (165.598 mph) with the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford to secure the top starting spot.
The 20-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., is seeking his second consecutive win at Homestead after winning last year’s finale. If he could do so this weekend, it would give him a championship as well.
However, Custer downplayed how much of a mental advantage his qualifying performance would actually bring when it comes down to racing for a championship.
“It gives you some confidence for sure, but it really doesn’t matter,” said Custer. “It doesn’t pay to win the pole. Our Haas Automation Mustang is really fast. It’s awesome to get the pole on Ford Championship Weekend, so hopefully we can close it out for them.
“I think we definitely had the car to do it (win the race). We just have to play it smart and be there at the end. It all comes down to that last run.”
One of Custer’s title rivals, the No. 20 GameStop Toyota of Christopher Bell, will line up on the front row alongside him. Bell turned the second-fastest lap (32.659/165.345) during the final round, coming up a half-tenth short of Custer’s pole time.
“I was hoping that he made a mistake running so hard in round one, but it didn’t matter for him,” said Bell of Custer. “We closed the gap each round. Round one, I didn’t really push too hard. Round two, that was everything I had and we were two-and-a-half tenths off. Round three, we were pretty close then. We’ll just have to go to work and try to outrace him.
“He’s definitely the one car that we don’t really want to race, but it’s the championship. We’re supposed to beat the best,” Bell continued. “Obviously, they’ve got their stuff figured out to get around this race track. Whoever is going to win is going to be at their best today, that’s for sure.”
John Hunter Nemechek, who is racing for the owner’s title in the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42, qualified third ahead of Tyler Reddick, the third of the four Championship 4 drivers in fourth.
Austin Cindric completed the top five, followed by Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler, Brandon Jones and Matt Tifft.
Daniel Hemric was the lowest of the title contenders in qualifying and will start 10th in Saturday’s race. Ryan Reed and Ryan Preece completed the first six rows of the grid.
Chase Briscoe was the first driver who failed to make the final round of qualifying, running the 13th-fastest lap (33.213/162.587) with the No. 60 Nutri Chomps Ford.
Other notables starting in the middle of the pack include Ryan Truex (15th), Spencer Gallagher (17th), Kaz Grala (18th) and Shane Lee (21st).
Ross Chastain did not post a time in the second round and will start 23rd in his final race for team owner Johnny Davis.
“I get criticized for this a lot, but tires fall off so much here that not running in the second round will help us there in the first stage of the race,” said Chastain. “Between that and the fact that when I went back out at Texas, I hit the wall, we just agreed that making another run wasn’t worth the risk.
“This is bittersweet; it’s my last race with JD Motorsports so we want to make the most of it.”
With 45 drivers on hand for 40 positions, Josh Williams, Stephen Leicht, Josh Bilicki, Bayley Currey and Tim Viens all failed to qualify.
For a look at the complete starting grid, advance to the next page.