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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Stewart-Haas Racing rookie Cole Custer

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Cole Custer has two NASCAR wins in the last three years, but so far the 19-year-old’s racing career is defined by two moments that didn’t see him in victory lane.

When he tackled John Hunter Nemechek last year and a month ago when Austin Dillon got his own point across by slowly forcing Custer into the outside wall under caution at Phoenix.

The latter took place four races into Custer’s rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series. But ask him what his “Welcome to the Xfinity Series” moment was in his first 11 starts dating back to last year and the incident is downplayed as not being that big a deal.

“I guess you could say Phoenix a little bit,” Custer told NBC Sports. “I honestly don’t know. There hasn’t really been a huge moment where anything huge has happened.”

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Two races later, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver achieved the biggest statistical moment of his short Xfinity career. He earned his first top five at Texas Motor Speedway, which surprised Custer given the 1.5-mile track’s recent repave and reconfiguration.

“I didn’t think I was the best at going to new tracks and new surfaces,” he said. “I think since we had such a great car and I adapted to the surface pretty good, we ended up having a fast car from the get go, really, and were able to have a solid day.”

It made him the second rookie to earn a top five this year after William Byron at Phoenix. The result came in the sixth race of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program.

The following Q&A had been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Since you’re going to be at Bristol this week, if you were competing in the Cup race what would you choose as your introduction song?

Custer: That’s a tough one. I wish they did it for the Xfinity Series. You definitely have to think about it a lot before you choose. I don’t know, off the top of my head. Maybe something like 21 Pilots. I really like their music. … Maybe “Ride” by 21 Pilots or something.

NBC Sports: What’s the most emotional you’ve gotten about a sporting event that wasn’t auto racing?

Custer: Probably (Carolina) Panthers’ games back when they were terrible. I was probably a bigger Panther fan when they weren’t good than when they are good, kind of like right now. I would get really mad. It would ruin my whole day when they would lose.

NBC Sports: Why do you think you had stronger emotional reactions when they were horrible than when they were good and going to the Super Bowl.

Custer: I don’t know, its frustrating when people make mistakes. It’s frustrating losing.

NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?

Custer: Maybe right before qualifying, you’re pretty nervous just cause you have to lay down a fast lap in a short amount of time. That’s probably the most nerve-wracking.

NBC Sports: What’s the biggest difference for you going from JR Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing?

Custer: They’re both great organizations, have great people. Stewart-Haas has a lot of great people, a lot of great resources. I think they build a lot of fast cars. I think having Tony (Stewart) around and seeing him and how much he helps and cares, that’s pretty awesome and seeing all the racers here. It’s awesome to see.

NBC Sports: What’s been the biggest hurdle for the team in getting this season underway and this program started?

Custer: Pretty much just everything. We had to build a team from nothing. Having to get everything in place and build brand new cars and having to do all this stuff, it’s just not easy for anyone to do and let alone be fast when you go to the race track. I think we did a great job channeling all of it.

NBC Sports: You’ve gotten to race with Kevin Harvick a couple of times this year. What’s been a lesson you’ve learned from him that’s helped you on the track?

Custer: Probably just being patient during the races. He helps me every week in going to new race tracks and giving me advice on what his experiences have been there.

NBC Sports: What’s it been like getting to know your crew chief, Jeff Meendering, through these first few races?

Custer: It’s been great. He has a lot of background and a lot of knowledge. He’s a really smart guy and really level-headed. I think we go well together. He’s given me some really fast cars this year. I just have to learn how to bring things home clean and not making any huge mistakes during the race and I think we’ll have some good finishes. He’s definitely one of the best, though.

NBC Sports: How has your relationship with Tony Stewart grown over the last few years?

Custer: He’s just been awesome. He’s helped me so much in just communicating with my team and giving me advice and he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. You see him on TV and he’s a little bit different than what he actually is. He’s really soft-spoken, a really nice guy and one of the best. It’s been awesome to work with him.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.