The seeds of Cole Custer’s first Cup victory were sown before anyone could have imagined it would be him celebrating Sunday at Kentucky Speedway and not Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr.
Custer’s rise from 13th to first in the last 20 laps was a study in acuity by a driver who said he’s had days where “your eyes are sore trying to look at film, trying to figure everything out.”
He also had some good fortune. The key, though, was taking advantage of those situations, which he did.
He was 13th on the restart on Lap 249 of the 267-lap race. He restarted on the inside lane in the seventh row back. Many drivers on the inside line lost positions on restarts throughout the race but Custer moved up to 12th when Jimmie Johnson, restarting third, spun after contact with Brad Keselowski.
While the contact ruined Johnson’s race, it set Custer’s dramatic finish in motion. By gaining one spot, he was in the outside lane in the sixth row for the next restart.
When the race’s final caution waved on Lap 262 for Matt Kenseth’s spin, Custer was sixth, having gained six spots in six laps. A key move came when he went to the outside and was four-wide. Matt DiBenedetto pushed Custer past those cars.
Heading into the final restart, Custer was in the outside lane in the third row behind Harvick, who was leading, and Keselowski.
Truex started on the inside lane on the front row and had Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch behind him.
Keselowski explained the dilemma he (and Blaney) faced in the second row.
“All race long, not just that restart, the third- and fourth-place guys while they’re pushing — if you don’t push, your lane doesn’t go — then the car behind you gets a huge run on you, and that makes it tough,” Keselowski said.
“That’s what happened to me on the last restart. I was fourth and I was pushing Kevin and Cole used his run to get to the outside.”
Keselowski said another key was what happened between he and Harvick.
“I was just out of sync with Kevin on the final restart,” Keselowski said. “I probably should have communicated a little better with him and that’s my fault, and that put us in a spot vulnerable to the lane behind us and they ultimately won the race.”
Custer closed to Keselowski’s rear bumper on the restart. Past the start/finish line, Custer pulled out to the right as Keselowski was no longer connected to Harvick.
DiBenedetto followed Custer when Custer pulled to the right.
“Cole is always a smart racer,” DiBenedetto said. “He’s one of those guys, even though he’s a rookie, he doesn’t make silly moves. He puts himself usually in pretty good spots.
“When we restarted, we made a pretty big power move on the restart before that. I got a good restart. I was curious basically what he was going to do. When he pulled to the top, I was like, Yeah, that was a good move right there.
“I just decided to shove him since I couldn’t go around him on the outside.”
The next key moment came in Turn 2. As Truex and Harvick ran side-by-side for the lead, Blaney was third and moving off the bottom lane as Custer charged on the outside. Blaney couldn’t get in front of Custer in time and was stuck watching Custer roll by.
“Those decisions, you have to make them really quick, and it’s really hard to just hook a right right in the middle of the corner and try to get up there and things like that,” Blaney said. “So, yeah, I look back on that and will probably be kicking myself probably a little bit on that if there was time to get up. I probably wasn’t really aggressive enough on that, but I have to look. But it is really hard.
“Sometimes your spotter will say, ‘clear,’ but it’s really hard to just let go of the wheel and just turn right because you’re going to lose speed going up the hill and if you’re six inches clear, you might close up quick … you learn from things like that and see what you do for next time.”
Harvick took the lead on the backstretch. Truex came up the track to tuck in behind Harvick but he hit Harvick in the left rear. Both cars lost momentum.
Custer charged and was squeezed between the wall and Truex’s car. They made slight contact. That slowed Custer’s momentum. Truex recovered and got beside Harvick in Turn 4, creating a draft for Custer, while Blaney raced on his inside.
“I tried to slide up behind (Harvick) off of (Turn) 2 there so I didn’t get freight trained,” Truex said. “I clipped his rear enough to turn him sideways.”
Said Harvick: “Martin just misjudged there on the backstretch and got me sideways. I got out of the gas and that just brought everybody into the picture and then we were four-wide on the front straightaway.”
Blaney tried to stay away from Truex, Harvick and Custer and ran low on the track before he cut through the apron on the frontstretch.
“I was just trying to get way from those three guys,” Blaney said. “I was just trying to get some room between us and not get side drafted or slowed down. I couldn’t necessarily see them, but I was told I was bottom four (wide) and that was for the lead, so obviously I’m just going to get away from (them) as much as possible because I felt like they were all going to slow each other down and maybe I’d have an edge.
“People do that all the time, cut to the apron on every type of racetrack that’s available, just none of the other ones have ramps on them.”
Or a drain. One Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran over in the 2016 race there.
“I don’t understand how you can repave a place a handful of years ago and there’s a jump bigger than any track we go to, but, yeah, I didn’t even know it was there,” Blaney said. “We don’t run on it. You never run down there, and I didn’t really know it was gonna be that bad. I was lucky it didn’t wipe out all of us.”
With the momentum from the draft, Custer darted outside of Truex. As they came to the start/finish line to begin the final lap, Blaney was on the apron with Harvick, Truex and Custer all together. The top four cars crossed the line four wide.
That’s when Blaney hit the drain. His car launched off the track and darted to the right, hitting Harvick’s car. The contact caused Harvick’s car to move up the track and forced Truex higher. That came just after Custer cleared them. At that point, Custer was focused on his first Cup win.
“I just wanted to start yelling honestly,” Custer later said of that moment.
“I was like, man, I got to wait till I get to the start/finish line because I’ll jinx this thing. At that point I kind of knew I had it.”
“It was a wild last lap,” Blaney said, “a wild last couple of laps to be honest with you.”