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Cole Custer ready for encore of first career Cup top-5 finish

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Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be a night and day difference.

In recent years, the Cup race at the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track has primarily been a nighttime affair. Teams have compiled big notebooks of data from racing under the lights.

That won’t be the case Sunday, as the green flag is slated to drop at 2:54 p.m. ET.

While this will be his first career Cup start at Kentucky, rookie Cole Custer is no stranger to the track, having won last summer’s Xfinity race there – and scored consecutive fifth-place finishes in the two preceding races in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s something that you definitely see a difference in the track, I feel like, when it’s day and when it goes to night,” Custer said in a media teleconference. “So trying to figure out how you want to adjust your car to kind of a slicker track is gonna be pretty important.

“And also the biggest difference is we don’t have all the practice sessions before the race to work in the track. You saw that Thursday night with the Xfinity race, there was dust all over. The bottom lane was not worked in very well, so it’s gonna take a little while for that bottom lane to work in. We’re gonna see how worked in it is by the time we get to our race.

“There’s a lot of differences, honestly, but, at the same time it’s still the same track. It’s a really edgy racetrack because it’s new pavement, it’s a repave, so the tires are a little bit harder. The track takes a little bit of time to get worked in and you have that PJ1 (traction compound), so you’re able to take things from the Xfinity car – what lines kind of worked there and how it changed throughout the weekend – so basic characteristics with the track you’re able to kind of carry over. But at the same time, the feel in the car is completely different and how you work traffic and things like that.”

Custer enters Sunday’s race ranked 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest position of the four major drivers in this year’s Cup rookie class (Tyler Reddick is 18th, John Hunter Nemechek is 22nd and Christopher Bell is 24th).

“There’s definitely been a lot of learning, for sure,” Custer said. “Obviously, these cars are a lot different than what the Xfinity cars were, so trying to wrap your head around that and figure out how to effect every little thing, whether it’s passing or restarts or how to work traffic or pit road, just anything about it, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting 100 percent out of it.

“It’s always going to be challenging being a rookie, but at the same time it’s probably been a little bit more challenging this year because you don’t have practice, we didn’t have rookie testing, and these cars are a big difference from the Xfinity Series. It’s hard to do that without the practice time.

“I think it pushes all of us to be better because we all want to compete against each other and make sure we’re not falling behind too much. I think it’s just a matter of you still have to focus on yourself most of the time. If you’re focused on other people, you’re not gonna be making yourself better and working on your own problems. But at the same time it does push you to make sure you’re pushing yourself as much as you can.”

Custer is coming off his first top-five finish of the season at Indianapolis last weekend. He  has just one other top 10 in the first 16 races.

Still, Custer’s finish at Indy, which included pushing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to the win, leaves Custer optimistic heading into this weekend.

“At that point, my best shot was to push Kevin and that might have got me in a better position to try and maybe make a move to try to win the race also,” Custer said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, you’re coming to that line and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this right. This is important right here. We need this.’

“So I’ve been in those situations before where you’ve got to push people if you’re running up front in the Xfinity cars or the Truck Series or whatever it is, so you have experience doing that kind of stuff, but doing it at this level puts that much more pressure on it and you’re at the Brickyard 400 so you want to make it happen. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was something that we were able to kind of control those nerves and make sure that we do our jobs right.

“Now I feel like we’re at a good point where we’re putting it all together and get close to affect all those little things. But you have to do it on a consistent basis and I think we’re gaining on that.”

The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has his work cut out for himself Sunday, starting 29th.

“I feel like I’ve already spent hours trying to figure that out,” Custer quipped. “It’s definitely gonna be a tough race.

“It looks like it’s gonna be a really dominant top lane kind of race, so that makes it a little bit tough to pass. But at the same time, the track is gonna be changing throughout the whole weekend, so it’s hard to tell exactly what our race is gonna be like yet.

“You’re trying to work through all the different possibilities in your mind of what our race might look like. But overall I feel like it’s gonna be a track position race. You’re gonna want to try to get towards the front on restarts and on pit road, and from there you’re just trying to run a solid race without having mistakes.”

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Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Thursday night’s Xfinity race at Kentucky: Start time, forecast and more

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A stretch of five races in four days at Kentucky Speedway begins Thursday night with the first of two Xfinity Series races.

It will mark the second doubleheader of the year for the Xfinity Series.

Can Chase Briscoe keep up a winning pace that’s seen him win three times in the last four races (and five overall thus far in the season’s first 13 races)?

Here’s all the info you need for Thursday night’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be at 8:13 p.m by Shady Rays CEO Chris Ratterman. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 1 p.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments are at 6 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 8:05 p.m by Jason Romano. The national anthem will be performed at 8:06 p.m. by Matthew Grant.

DISTANCE: The race is 134 laps (201 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 30. Stage 2 ends on Lap 60.

INSPECTION: Ronnie Bassett Jr.‘s car failed inspection twice. He loses pit selection for Friday’s race.

TO THE REAR: Mason Massey and Bayley Currey (unapproved adjustments)

PACE LAPS: At the direction of race control, the entire field will go down pit road during a pace lap for pit road speed verification. If a driver stops in the pit box for any reason, pull over or slow down, they will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s coverage will begin at 7:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, a high of 86 degrees and a 24% chance of rain predicted at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Chase Briscoe defeated Justin Haley and Noah Gragson to win on the Indianapolis road course.

LAST RACE AT KENTUCKY: Cole Custer beat Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for lineup

NASCAR entry lists for Kentucky Speedway

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Following the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR continues its season with a visit to Kentucky Speedway.

All three national series will be in action at the 1.5-mile track. The Xfinity Series holds a doubleheader to start the weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the weekend.

Cup – Quaker State 400 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Jimmie Johnson has been medically cleared to compete after testing negative for COVID-19 twice.

No driver is listed for Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

JJ Yeley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 27 Ford.

Kurt Busch won this race last year over Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity race No. 1 – Shady Rays 200 (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Jeb Burton is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on DGM Racing’s No. 36 Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity race No. 2  – Alsco 300 (8 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Daniel Hemric is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won this race last year over Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (6 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered.

Ryan Truex is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Chevrolet.

Natalie Decker is listed for Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet. Decker missed the last race at Pocono due to a hospitalization. NBC Sports has reached out to the team to confirm that she’s been medically cleared to race.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR Cup live stream at Indianapolis: Start time, TV, lineup, forecast for Sunday

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The NASCAR Cup Series looks to start a new tradition by racing on the Fourth of July weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The start time at Indianapolis is 4:24 p.m. ET (Watch on NBC or the NASCAR Cup live stream on the NBC Sports app).

Kevin Harvick looks to continue his strong run this season and win at this historic track for the third time in his career and second year in a row.

Denny Hamlin, who beat Harvick a day after Harvick beat him at Pocono, will look to win at the Brickyard for the first time after coming close before.

Justin Allgaier drives the No. 48 car today after Jimmie Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

Here is the NASCAR Cup live stream, start time at Indianapolis and other info for Sunday’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records President & CEO, will give the command to start engines at 4:13 p.m. The green flag for the is scheduled to wave at 4:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 8 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:05 p.m by Pastor Mark Schuitema of College Park Church in Indianapolis. The national anthem will be performed at 4:06 p.m. by Valory Music Company recording artist Abbey Cone. Two A-10 Warthogs from the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will perform the flyover.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, the entire field will go down pit road during a pace lap for pit road speed verification. If a driver stops in the pit box for any reason, pull over or slow down, they will start at the rear of the field.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 12.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with the NASCAR America Pre-Race Show on NBCSN. Countdown to Green follows at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN before coverage moves to NBC for the race. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network’s coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

LIVE STREAM: You can watch the race on NBCSports.com or the Brickyard live stream NBC Sports app.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions with a high of 90 degrees and a 16% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Denny Hamlin won at Pocono. Kevin Harvick placed second. Erik Jones was third.

LAST RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS: Kevin Harvick won last September’s race. Joey Logano was second. Bubba Wallace placed third.

TO THE REAR: Justin Allgaier (replaces Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48) and Timmy Hill (failed pre-race inspection twice).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

Justin Allgaier ready for starring role as Jimmie Johnson’s understudy

Jimmie Johnson uncertain how he got COVID-19JJ tests positive

First 15 Cup races have been “eye-opening” for Christopher Bell

Indy says no need to alter barrier Brad Keselowski struck in 2019 race

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis 

Face masks among precautions for Bristol All-Star Race

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?