In a surprising finish, rookie Cole Custer stole the show from the veteran drivers on the final restart to win not only his first Cup race, but he became the first rookie to win at Kentucky. All past winners at Kentucky Speedway are Cup champions, which could speak to Custer’s future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
The top rookies have been running well as of late and this race saw Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell all running in the Top 10. Like The King has always said, the driver’s job is to put yourself in a position to win a race. Custer heeded that advice and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. And oh how he took it.
The first two Stages were won by Aric Almirola and Brad Keselowski. Almirola had a 4 second lead on the field in Stage 1, it was no contest. The race tightened way up in Stage 2 and it was obvious at that point that the rookie class was running as well as the veterans.
The battle for the win appeared to be between Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex, Jr. (who started from the rear), Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson (returning from a weird COVID positive test) and a suddenly resurgent Kevin Harvick. Harvick has been complaining about a bad handling car all day at at the end, there he was. Of course.
Restarts were total mayhem and the race had run pretty clean with a few spins here and there. But the late restarts got really hairy. With Blaney and Truex on the front row, Jimmie Johnson and Harvick were in row two. Johnson got spun by Keselowski who was behind him in row three on what we all thought might be the final restart. Johnson appeared to move to block Keselowski who had a big run, but it was too late and around 7-time went, through the grass and back onto the track.
The next restart saw Kevin Harvick make it three wide and pass Blaney and Truex. It sure looked like Harvick was going to steal the race after all his struggles but another caution came out for a Matt Kenseth spin.
As the leaders lined up, it looked to be a battle between Blaney, Kurt Busch, Harvick and Truex. Custer was there but no one really thought he could outfox the masters. But on the final restart as Blaney, Harvick and Truex went three-wide and leaned on each other, Custer came with a huge run on the outside that was initially blocked by Truex. But Truex appeared to be unsure if what to do – block Custer or battle Harvick and Blaney. He chose wrong. He went back to attack Harvick giving Custer a clean outside line and Custer pulled a Kevin Harvick move, took the veterans four wide and pulled ahead for the win. Also of particular note, Matt DiBenedetto ran up front much of the day, finished third and could easily have played the Cole Custer role.
I still contend that the racing with no testing and no practices is giving us some of the best racing we have seen. The teams have to work on the cars in the pits and stay on top of the race. The race transitions from stage to stage and we have seen drivers go from being dominant to finishing 10th and drivers who struggle only to come alive at the end of the race. While I was never a huge Stage racing fan, the Stages are proving their worth right now as the biggest opportunity for crew chiefs to adjust the cars.
Drives like Kyle Busch rely on the practices to dial in their car and Kyle is winless in 2020 and not having a lot of fun right now. He has seven Top 5 finishes and three runner up finishes, which is not all bad. But he also has eight finishes outside the Top 15. So when he is good, he is OK but when he is bad, he is really bad. Kentucky was not kind to Joe Gibbs Racing aside from Martin Truex. Denny Hamlin also struggled to a 10th place run while Eric Jones was 22nd and Kyle Busch was 21st.
Chevy and Toyota each had two cars in the Top 10 and the remaining 6 were Fords.
Bristol is the site of the next two races including the All Star race on Wednesday night. There have been several changes to the event least of all the location. Lights on the underside of the cars will add to the eye candy and Bristol itself should produce some pretty good racing.
I, for one, am liking the racing product this year. I dig the “run what ya brung” challenge that no practice has brought and the ebb and flow of the races has been interesting enough to keep me watching. There haven’t been to many blow outs although once in clean air, just about any good car can get away from the field. That’s the nature of the package NASCAR has this season proving they really haven’t figured out the aero situation. But if this is the kind of finish we see more often than not every week, I’ll take that.
(Featured image courtesy of NASCAR Media/Rob Carr/Getty Images)