Cole Custer won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway, beating Kyle Busch for his third career Xfinity win.
Custer, a native of Ladera Ranch, California, led the final 19 laps, scoring his first victory since last fall’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.
“It means a ton,” Custer told Fox Sports 1. “To start the year off with a new crew chief in Mike (Shiplett) and a new engineer in Davin (Restivo), they just did a good job in coming over here, just trying to work through all the things. We’ve been a little frustrated with ourselves, we’ve been wanting to run better than fourth and top five. But today we accomplished that.”
Custer is the first non-Cup competitor to win at ACS since Scott Riggs in April 2002 (23 races).
“Kyle Busch is one of the legends of our sport,” Custer said. “To keep him … from getting 200 (NASCAR wins) means a lot. I am sure he is probably a little frustrated but we have a great time racing him and hopefully we do it more in the future.”
Busch, who led 98 of 150 laps, finished second after he bounced back from an uncontrolled tire penalty on pit road in the middle of the final stage. That forced him to restart 13th with 33 laps to go. Busch will have to wait at least one more day to earn his 200th national NASCAR series win.
“I just wasn’t fast enough,” Busch said. “At the end there, he (Custer) was really good and really fast and had a good car. They got better throughout the day and got closer to our rear bumper there on that second-to-last run before we had our pit road problems and dropped us back in the pack. Obviously, we were able to rebound, but when you have a fast guy out front and a fast guy in second, they run the same times and they stay the same distance apart. We just weren’t quick enough there at the end to chase them down.”
Cole Custer was fastest in the first of two Xfinity Series practices Friday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
The Stewart Haas Racing driver roared around the 2-mile high speed oval in his Ford Mustang at 177.039 mph, the only driver to exceed 177 mph.
Christopher Bell was second fastest (176.882 mph), followed by the man who is getting the most attention this weekend, Kyle Busch (176.350 mph), who is seeking to become only the second driver in NASCAR history to reach 200 wins in a career.
Busch comes into this weekend with 199 career NASCAR wins: 52 in Cup, 53 in Trucks and 94 in Xfinity. He can reach 200 with a win in Saturday’s Xfinity race or in Sunday’s Cup event.
Tyler Reddick was fourth fastest in the session (175.970 mph), leading a surge of five Chevy drivers in a row, followed by Justin Allgaier in fifth (175.833), Noah Gragson (175.653), Jeremy Clements (174.834) and John Hunter Nemechek (174.478).
Rounding out the top 10 were Austin Cindric (174.338 mph) and Ryan Preece (174.350).
The final Xfinity practice will take place later this afternoon from 4:35 to 5:25 p.m. ET.
While running eighth in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a Brandon Jones crash with two laps to go left Sieg thinking the worst going into overtime.
“I thought we were going to finish eighth and now we have to restart over again,” Sieg told NBC Sports.
The reaction by the 32-year-old from Tucker, Georgia, was likely instinctive. In five previous full-time years on the Xfinity circuit, Sieg has never had an average finish better than 17.8 and had only nine top 10s in 169 starts.
Things have changed in 2019.
In overtime, Sieg avoided a four-car wreck among the leaders coming to the white flag. On the last overtime attempt, he restarted fifth and lost one spot before the checkered flag.
It was his second top 10 to start the season on top of placing 11th a week before at Atlanta. It also was his best finish on a 1.5-mile track.
That leaves Sieg with a career-best position of eighth in the point standings. His previous best through three races was ninth in 2016.
Sieg said his Las Vegas experience was the most fun he’s ever had in a race.
“It was definitely wild,” Sieg said.
New and Improved
Sieg is used to wild racing.
But the wild he’s experiencing at the front this year is different than previous seasons.
“You’d get side-by-side with a couple of drivers and just kind of cringe ’cause you were worried about them holding their line,” Sieg said. “This year I’ve been racing with the 9 (rookie Noah Gragson), the 11 (rookie Justin Haley), the 22 (Austin Cindric), pretty much all of them, the JR Motorsports cars. You’re passing them and you’re racing them and they’re racing you clean.
“It’s given me a better feeling racing side-by-side with people you can trust, so that’s definitely a positive compared to other years where I think you had some drivers who were in equipment that was a little bit better than they were.”
Now Sieg can say he’s in equipment worthy of his own talents.
Last year, Sieg ended the season 16th in the standings. It tied his career-worst result and was his lowest mark in four seasons.
One culprit was age. Not for him, but the cars he was driving.
“Our cars last year were I think 4 to 5 years old,” Sieg said. “When you’re running cars that are four and five (years) off what the Cup (affiliated) cars are, you can’t beat it. That’s (on top) of being down on horsepower a little bit, down on engineering, down on everything. … I would say the Cup teams in Xfinity were two to three generations ahead of what we had. It makes a big difference.”
Now Sieg is piloting essentially brand new cars bought from Richard Childress Racing.
“‘Cowboy’ (nickname for competition director Kevin Starland), whose been with us for a while, said they’re the best cars we’ve ever had,” Sieg said.
He qualified for the season-opener at Daytona in eighth and stayed in the top 10 most of the day before he finished third.
It was his fourth career top five and his third at Daytona.
“Racing in the top 10 all day you realize it’s a different level of a car and a program,” Sieg said. “When you go out every weekend, 33 races and you have a car you know is going to be off the pace of other drivers it wears on you. It gets tiring, it gets old. You get frustrated with it. You almost just get stuck in that same mold of, ‘OK, that guy’s faster than me, that guys faster than me.’ It gets frustrating but now it’s a lot more fun.”
More with less
Another addition for Sieg’s team is at crew chief.
After Starland served in the position for much of last season, Sieg decided to hire Shane Wilson about two weeks before the team headed to Daytona.
He’s now part of an effort that includes seven full-time employees in addition to the “weekend warriors” Sieg says help them out at the track.
“I don’t want to slight anyone we’ve worked with in the past, but I’ll say Shane is definitely very smart and comes to the race weekend with a plan,” Sieg said. “A big difference is on Fridays we’re not trying to set a fast lap. … We’re really working on the balance on the longer run. A lot of that is how your car is set up. You can go out and cut a fast lap in practice, but 10 laps into the race don’t do you a whole lot of good.”
What Sieg and his team are capable of this week could say a lot about the gains they’ve made.
The series heads to the flat, 1-mile ISM Raceway outside Phoenix, a place Sieg has never finished better than 14th (twice). Last year he earned finishes of 25th and 19th.
“For sure, our flat track results, Phoenix and New Hampshire and some of those other tracks have really been our biggest weakness,” Sieg said. “I’ve never really been to that track with a car I felt has been under me. The goal again is to have a good car for the longer run. It can go green there. … I’m definitely more excited to go there this year than any other year in the past.”
The split of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus has its bright spots.
One fan decided to take his loyalty to the No. 24 team with Knaus and showed up in the Las Vegas garage bearing a message. Johnson posted pictures of the fan and his makeshift signs over the weekend and may have won him back.
The West Coast Swing has its downsides when it comes to travel time, but Aric Almirola is getting through it thanks to power of caffeine and Dr. Seuss.
I never drank coffee until we had kids. Today is a prime example of why. Getting home from the west coast and operating on a few hours of sleep, but gotta get up and be Dad! Abby is in a Dr. Seuss parade at school and I can't miss it. 😍 pic.twitter.com/K2risEFmlh
Busch’s win comes the day after his victory in the Truck Series race. He had an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 14 for a loose wheel that sent him a lap down. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver returned to the lead lap after taking the wave around at the end of Stage 1. He then took the lead a few laps into the final stage and led 98 of 213 laps.
“I didn’t keep myself in the game, I just knew to keep fighting and just keep working,” said Busch. “Wasn’t sure how we were going to be able to do it being short a set of tires but we got lucky with that caution in the second stage (Austin Cindric spin) that kind of got us back on cycle. We were able to put our first set back on with a fresh wheel so we didn’t have any more issues there.”
The win is Busch’s 197th overall national NASCAR win.
The first overtime attempt was setup by a hard wreck involving Brandon Jones with two laps left in the scheduled distance when Cole Custer made contact with his left rear.