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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Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“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,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last 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 and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Power Rankings after Pocono: Denny Hamlin a unanimous No. 1

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Denny Hamlin not only won Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono, he also knocked Ryan Blaney off the top spot for this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Hamlin was a unanimous selection of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for No. 1 in this week’s rankings.

Kevin Harvick, who finished 1st-2nd in the two Pocono races (while Hamlin finished 2nd-1ast), was the biggest gainer, going from unranked last week to a unanimous pick for No. 2 this week. The biggest drop was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who went from third last week to unranked this week.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Denny Hamlin (30 points): Keeps getting stronger. First four-time winner of the season. Could this be the year he finally wins his first Cup championship? Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (27 points): Came so close to making it a weekend sweep. Has 3 wins, eight top five and 12 top-10 finishes in first 15 races. Has finished outside the top 15 only once this season. Last week: unranked.

3. Aric Almirola (23 points): Four consecutive top fives – his only top fives this season and the best streak of his career – has Almirola back on track after earlier struggles. Last week: fourth (tied).

4. Chase Elliott (15 points): Has four top 10s in the last six races. Last week: seventh.

5. Brad Keselowski (14 points): Since NASCAR returned from the COVID-19 hiatus, Keselowski has two wins and just three finishes outside the top 10 in 11 races. Last week: eighth (tied).

6. Ryan Blaney (13 points): Had an off weekend (best finish was 12th on Saturday) after his win at Talladega. His Pocono finishes snapped a streak of six top-five finishes in his previous seven starts. Last week: first.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (12 points): Has four top 10s, including a win, in the last six races. Last week: unranked.

8. Chase Briscoe (9 points): Has been strong in the Xfinity Series this season, leading the way with four wins – including Sunday at Pocono. Last week: unranked.

9. Erik Jones (8 points): Sunday’s season-best third-place finish – his second top five in the last three races – was a big turnaround from wrecking out Saturday. Last week: 10th (tied).

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (6 points): Earned pair of top-10 finishes at Pocono, first back-to-back top 10s this season. Can he keep the momentum going at Indianapolis, where he’s had back-to-back fifth-place finishes the last two years? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 10. Alex Bowman (6 points): Earned third top 10 in last five races. Last week: 4th (tied).

Others receiving votes: Matt DiBenedetto (1 point), Brandon Jones (1 point).

Cup Series playoff grid after Pocono

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For now, Erik Jones is back in and Tyler Reddick is out, with Austin Dillon moving up.

That’s how the NASCAR Cup playoff standings shape up with 11 races remaining in the regular season following last weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway. The series races at 4 p.m. ET Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBC.

Jones’ third-place finish Sunday not only was a significant rebound from Saturday’s 38th-place showing after a wreck, he vaulted over Reddick to take the 16th and final spot for the 10-race Cup playoffs.

Jones had previously been ranked as high as 13th in the playoff picture following last month’s two races at Charlotte, only to get knocked out of the top 16 after finishing 21st at Miami.

“We feel like we definitely should make the playoffs,” said Jones, who entered Sunday six points out of a playoff spot. “We’ve done that the last few years and I don’t see this year as any different.”

Reddick lost his power steering as Sunday’s race began. After repairs were made, his team had to change an alternator belt. Reddick finished 35th, dropping him to 18th in the playoff standings, 26 points behind Jones for the final playoff spot.

Dillon, Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, finished 14th Sunday to climb to 17th in the playoff standings. He is 14 points behind Jones.

As for the eight drivers locked into the playoffs with wins, Denny Hamlin has the most playoff points (23), followed by Kevin Harvick (16), Joey Logano (14), Brad Keselowski (13), Chase Elliott (10), Alex Bowman (9), Martin Truex Jr. (7) and Ryan Blaney (6).

 

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NASCAR to move location of car numbers for All-Star Race

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NASCAR will use the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway to experiment with the location of numbers on race cars.

Instead of the traditional location of numbers on car doors, those numbers will be pushed back toward the rear wheel. All teams competing in the All-Star Race and All-Star Open are required to have the car number in this location. The move allocates more space on car sides for sponsors, something teams have requested.

On Wednesday’s Motor Racing Network’s Crew Call, NASCAR president Steve Phelps explained the reason for the change to show host Mike Bagley:

“I think the All-Star (Race) historically has been an opportunity for us to test things, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing with this,” Phelps said. “Teams have asked us to take a look at this, provide some additional visibility for sponsors, so that’s what we’ll test.”

The change will be for the All-Star Race and All-Star Open only.

“We’ll evaluate it,” Phelps said. “Is it the right thing to do? Is it not the right thing to do? I  know some folks that came out and said ‘this is not for me, I don’t like it,’ so we’ll take that all under consideration and as we move past the All-Star (Race) we’ll see what it looks like moving forward.”

In addition to having another option to increase sponsor visibility on cars, the move of the car number is also seen as a combination of catering to tradition and existing fans along with attracting new fans.

“I think not in every instance, but there are instances where you actually can do both,” Phelps told Bagley. “I don’t think you have to have the two at odds with each other. Sometimes that’s going to happen, but for us, we’ve talked about hearing from the core fans and we do.

“We want to hear from the core fans and what they think, traditional fans. There are certain things we want to try out or we believe is in the best interest in the sport after collaborating with the industry and saying this is something we should test. This is one of those opportunities.

“I don’t know if it appeals to a newer fan vs. a fan for 40 years, the changes in the paint schemes. But again, it’s one race, the All-Star Race, what better time to test it?”

This would not be the first time where car numbers have been placed on areas other than the door. It was a practice for some teams in the early 1950s, according to NASCAR historian Ken Martin, per a story on NASCAR.com.

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Fifteen drivers are locked into the All-Star Race by virtue of wins in 2019 and 2020 (to date): Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman, Justin Haley and Matt Kenseth.

There are five opportunities remaining for other drivers to get automatic berths in the All-Star Race field by virtue of winning at any of the five races still to be held prior to the All-Star Race: Talladega, the Pocono doubleheader, Indianapolis and Kentucky.

Several other drivers are eligible to be voted in as part of the NASCAR Fan Vote, currently under way through noon ET July 14. Click here to vote. Drivers are eligible for the Fan Vote by having attempted to qualify for the 2020 Daytona 500.

Those drivers are: Quin Houff, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Ty Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Brennan Poole, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, David Ragan, Ryan Preece, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chad Finchum, Joey Gase, B.J. McLeod, JJ Yeley, Brendan Gaughan, Timmy Hill, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez.

If any of those drivers win a stage in the NASCAR Open qualifying race prior to the All-Star Race, that driver will be locked into the field and not eligible to be the Fan Vote winner.

One Fan Vote winner has gone on to win the All-Star Race in the event’s history: Kasey Kahne in 2008.

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