NASCAR Cup

Cole Custer earns first career Cup win Sunday at Kentucky

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NASCAR Cup rookie Cole Custer roared from sixth place on the final restart with two laps to go to earn his first career Cup win Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.

Custer went to the outside coming to the white flag lap to get around Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick, as well as Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney, and sailed to the checkered flag.

“I’m surprised, yes,” Custer said after the race. “We’ve done a better job putting things together. It was just putting the whole picture together. But I think we’re now at the point where we can race with these guys and go to the front.”

MORE: Click here for results and standings

He then added with a chuckle, “I started yelling (coming to the white flag and taking the lead) but I didn’t want to jinx it.”

Custer becomes the first Cup rookie of the year contender to win a race since Chris Buescher did so in a rain-shortened event at Pocono Raceway in 2016. Justin Haley scored his first career Cup win last year at Daytona but was not running for rookie of the year honors.

The California native came into Sunday’s race 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest ranked of the five full-time Cup rookies. He’s the first Cup rookie this season to be locked into the playoffs.

“We were so good, our car was so good,” Custer told FS1. “That was the best car I’ve ever driven in my life. Unbelievable car. It definitely was not the start of the year we wanted, we were off in some places.”

But Custer has scored his two best finishes of his Cup career in the last eight days. He was fifth at Indianapolis last Sunday and followed that up with Sunday’s win, which also earns him a berth in Wednesday’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Everything lined up perfectly for us, we had our shot and took advantage of it,” Custer’s crew chief, Mike Shiplett, said after the race. “We put it all together today and gave it our best shot.”

Not only was it Custer’s first Cup win, it also was Shiplett’s first Cup win as a crew chief, having done so previously in both the Xfinity and Truck Series.

Truex finished second followed by Matt DiBenedetto, Harvick and Kurt Busch.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Aric Almirola (second stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski (fourth stage win of season)

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Third-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto earned his second-best showing of the season (was second earlier this year in Las Vegas). Much like Custer, DiBenedetto roared through the pack on the last lap and got past Harvick and almost caught Truex.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Jimmie Johnson tried to block Brad Keselowski on a restart with 19 laps left and Keselowski spun Johnson out of the way. Johnson finished 19th. After the race, Keselowski said of the incident: “They launched together, the inside lane Blaney and Jimmie, and they stretched and then they started to slow down and as they slowed down I just had a huge run and I made a move to the inside. I was turning down towards the grass. I might have had a foot or two, but I couldn’t go much lower, and I don’t know if he was trying to turn down to block me or if he was trying to turn down to get underneath Blaney, but he turned down and I was too far forward. There was kind of unavoidable contact at that time. I don’t know. I hate that it ruined his day. I don’t really necessarily know what to do different.”

NOTABLE: FS1 reported before the race that Zach Price, Ryan Blaney’s tire changer, suffered a fractured leg after being struck by a car on pit road last weekend at indy. Price will be sidelined indefinitely but will not require surgery, FS1 reported.

WHAT’S NEXT: NASCAR All-Star Race, Wednesday, July 15, 8:30 p.m. ET (FS1), at Bristol Motor Speedway. Will be preceded by the All-Star Open at 7 p.m. ET (FS1). The next points race is Sunday, July 19, at Texas Motor Speedway at 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN).

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Truex on Custer’s roll: ‘There’s not much I could’ve done different’

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Cole Custer wasn’t the only one who was surprised he rallied from sixth place on the final restart to win Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. was equally surprised at how Custer and the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang practically came out of nowhere to draw even and then pass him heading into the final lap.

“I had just cleared the 4 (Kevin Harvick),” Truex said in a post-race video conference. “Just as I got off (turn four on the next-to-last lap) and got straight, the 41 was somehow beside me.

“I didn’t expect him coming, I don’t know if my spotter saw him coming, or by the time he told me he was already next to me. … At the same time, I think he had so much momentum that I don’t think I could have blocked him without crashing us both. There’s not much I could’ve done different there.

“We were all tangling and battling and side by side and three-wide and all that mess. These things are all just about momentum. (Custer) was able to keep his momentum going and we all came together coming into three, he was able to take advantage of it. … He was just at the right place at the right time, I guess.”

MORE: Results from Cup race at Kentucky

MORE: What drivers said after Kentucky

Part of the reason Truex may not have sensed Custer was gaining on him was Truex may have been rattled from making contact with Harvick’s car coming off Turn 3 on the next-to-last lap. Harvick would finish fourth.

As soon as he climbed from his race car, Truex made a beeline to Harvick to apologize for the inadvertent contact that, in hindsight, likely cost both of them a chance at the win.

“I think it’s always important to get it out of the way quickly,” Truex said. “I know Kevin well, we’ve raced together a long time and I’ve got tremendous amount of respect for him.

“Typically, we don’t have any issues, I just misjudged getting in behind him. I felt bad about that. I probably took away his chance to win the race, so I wanted him and (crew chief Rodney Childers) to know it was on me, it’s my bad. You can’t go back and change it now, but I definitely was sorry I did it.”

Truex’s runner-up finish is his best result and his first top-five since capturing his only win of the season at Martinsville seven races ago.

“It’s unfortunate for us to lose the lead twice with the caution coming at the wrong time, but that’s just part of the deal, how these things go,” Truex said. “But I’m obviously proud of the run today.

“It feels like we’re getting our arms back around some things, proud of the effort and I know some wins are coming now.”

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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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Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

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Having been in an admitted “dark head space” after testing positive for COVID-19 a week ago, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that he is “ready to go” to return to the NASCAR Cup Series and Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson was forced to miss last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, Johnson tested negative twice more than 24 hours apart. After that and being cleared by a doctor, NASCAR reinstated Johnson.

“It’s been an interesting week or so, to have a positive test and then the two negative tests, just the emotional journey you go through and worrying about your safety, your family’s safety, watching a race with someone else in your race car,” Johnson said during a media Zoom conference. “Coming to grips with the reality of all that has been challenging.

“I feel like I’m a smarter, stronger person today experiencing all this. Clearly extremely happy to be reinstated and ready to be back with my race team and that race car.”

Johnson proved to be asymptomatic. He demurred when asked if the original test was a false positive.

“I’ve had no symptoms through this journey,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios that can play out and to go through them and to form an opinion would just be speculating. At this point, I just don’t think that’s very intelligent or smart to do.

“I followed the protocol that NASCAR has in place and is the same protocol all the other major sports have as well. I’ve been watching the numerous positives take place and also seen many examples of a double negative within a 24-hour period take place and those athletes have been reinstated. It’s a science-based reinstatement process.

“… I’ve followed the protocol, it brings a lot of questions as to where I was in the journey of being positive. There’s a lot of speculation there. I don’t know those answers and I’m the most frustrated person out there, especially living in the world of facts that I do. To not have the facts drives me bananas.”

Johnson pronounced himself fit for Sunday’s race: “I feel great, I’m excited and I’m ready to go. … I’m super excited. In my head of optimism, boy, what a comeback story, the COVID comeback. It would really be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated but it would be really cool to have great success Sunday or certainly in the near future with everything.”

As the last week has played out, Johnson has run the gamut of emotions since he was first told about the positive result.

“My first response was just anger, I started cussing and I used every cuss word I knew of and I think I invented a few new ones,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It was just so weird at the anger because I’ve been asymptomatic. First anger hits and then speculation in my mind and it was like wait a second, there’s nothing good to come of this. No one knows, I don’t know, it’s just time to move on.

“Then I got very excited looking at the facts: I missed just one race, still am above the (playoff) cut line and then the optimism I hope I get that second negative (result) and then I did. I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and really out of the dark head space I was in, and moving in the right direction and looking forward in all this.”

Last Sunday, sitting at his family’s home in Colorado, Johnson admitted it was strange to see someone else – namely fill-in driver Justin Allgaier – in his No. 48 Chevy for the first time since Johnson first began driving that car in Cup late in 2001.

“It’s a weird set of events,” Johnson said. “Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing I wasn’t going to be in the car.

“It was the peak of emotions going with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end, not being in a car, my final year (racing in NASCAR), all the things you can think of.

“Sunday morning wasn’t great, but I joined the team call we have before the race, I was able to hear the voices of my crew guys, and give them a shot in the arm and pump them up and just be involved in that team moment. It’s crazy how that relaxed me because I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to watch the race.”

Johnson’s teleconference lasted nearly 30 minutes. Here are some other topics he covered:

Racing this weekend at Kentucky, one of only four current tracks the seven-time Cup champ has never won on (others are Charlotte Roval, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen): “Kentucky has probably been one of my top two or three most difficult tracks to compete at. I have mixed feelings for the place because when I first started at Hendrick Motorsports, I felt like I lived at that raceway doing testing for the team, getting in my laps and reps as a rookie coming into the sport. I have positive vibes from there, but my race experience there from the Busch Series days and even the Cup (series), has been demanding and tough. I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint and then clearly with what I’ve been through, my friends, family and fan base have been through, it’d be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

Why he tweeted out another show of support for Bubba Wallace earlier this week: “With the current events, just letting it be known I stood with Bubba at the beginning of this journey and I continue to stand with Bubba. (It was in response) to the tweet the President put out.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky

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Two-time winner Kyle Busch will start from the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1) thanks to a random draw.

He will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

Click here for the starting lineup

NASCAR Cup Series at Kentucky

Race Time: 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Kentucky Speedway; Sparta, Kentucky (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Thursday at Kentucky (134 laps, 201 miles), 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck race: Saturday at Kentucky (150 laps, 225 miles) 6 p.m. ET on FS1

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