This past Sunday during the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Motor Speedway, lots of trends were broken. First, the weather projected rain and lighting however it was sunny all afternoon preventing a rain delay. Secondly, Aric Almirola has finished in the top five in the past five races, that streak has come to an end with an eighth place finish. Finally, Denny Hamlin or chase leader, Kevin Harvick did not end up in victory lane, instead rookie, Cole Custer sneaked past Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap to become the first ever rookie to win at Kentucky. It was great to see the seven time Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson back on the track after breaking his 663 consecutive straight races due to testing positive for Covid-19. It was one week ago Johnson and his wife, Chani showed no symptoms of the virus other than what they believed was seasonal allergies. Unfortunately, Brad Keselowski made an aggressive move on a restart and tapped Johnson’s back left bumper spinning No. 48 into the infield with only 19 laps to go placing him overall at 18th.
Stage 1 & 2 - 80 Laps Each
Matt Kenseth and Truex Jr’s afternoon did not start as planned as both had to start from the rear after failing the pre-race inspection twice. The struggling 18, Kyle Busch took the pole over Joey Logano and led the first 9 laps of the race. Then it became the “Almirola Show” as he went on to dominate the rest of the field en route to a 71 lap led Stage 1 victory, in the distance, Chase Elliott, Logano, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney finished in the top five.
The start of Stage 2, Almirola again simply looked unstoppable leading the first 57 laps, that was until Blaney got some momentum and shot by Logano, in a flash, No. 12 Mustang snuck up on the outside and passed Almirola for the lead. With yet another non thrilling stage about to wrap up, Kenseth spun out off turn three, FINALLY, the race's first crash but he was able to continue after a brief stop on pit road. The leader Keselowski refueling and getting fresh tires as the caution came out, he was ahead of Blaney who was just seconds away from passing him, if only his crew chief, Todd Gordon could have made the call a lap earlier. Keselowski held off Blaney and company on a 1 lap sprint to take Stage 2, Custer, Logano and Truex Jr rounded out the top five.
Stage 3 - 106 Laps
Keselowski would stay in front but Truex Jr. passed him on the way inside to snag the lead with 84 laps to go, it would remain that way even after a wild caution from debris coming off of Brennan Poole’s car. Moments later under the same caution, Austin Dillon appeared to be heading into pit road but turned away abruptly which led him to spin out into the wall instead. With Truex Jr. still hanging on to the lead with 24 laps to go, John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall which brought out another caution. On the restart, Johnson tried to block off Keselowski on the inside, this eventually led to No. 48 spinning out into the inside grass after No. 2 nudged him out of the way. Another heart breaker for Johnson. “The Closer” Harvick wasted no time on the restart and took the lead on the inside going three wide into turn one, he would continue to fight off Truex Jr. and Blaney until Kenseth caused his second crash of the race as he spun out on turn three. No overtime, the drivers lined up for a two lap shootout that ended up as one of the most intense races of the season. Blaney on the deep inside took the lead heading into the final lap, when he gilded straight into Harvick’s back right tire, nothing but smoke trailed the No. 4. Harvick and Blaney just x’d their chances of winning, the rookie, Custer passed Truex Jr. on the outside to take the lead on turn two for good. The rookie got his first career win in just sixteen races, Truex Jr, DeBenedetto, Harvick and last year's Kentucky winner, Kurt Busch wrapped up the top five.
Cole Custer became the first rookie this season to ride off into victory lane, this is the second win in a row and the fifth this season for Stewart-Hass Racing. An interesting fact I learned is most rookie drivers take roughly three years of racing before winning a race, a very bright future for the No. 41 Ford Mustang. At the beginning of the season, it looked as if Tyler Reddick was going to be the rookie of the year, however as of late with a top 5 finish last week and a victory this week, Custer will have something to say about that.
This Wednesday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Tennessee, the top twenty drivers will compete in the 140-lap/ four-stage NASCAR’s annual All-Star race. Can Custer make it two in a row or will it be as predictable as the few races beforehand?