Cole Custer cruises to Xfinity victory at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Ky. – Cole Custer scored his series-high fifth Xfinity victory of the season Friday night, winning at Kentucky Speedway.

The series’ three dominant drivers this season all finished in the top three. Christopher Bell, who won the first two stages, finished second. Tyler Reddick was third.

Michael Annett and Chase Briscoe completed the top five. Only the top five cars finished on the lead lap. Custer led 88 of the 200 laps.

MORE: Click here for race results

MORE: Click here for driver points

This is Custer’s second consecutive victory on a 1.5-mile track. He won at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago. This also is Custer’s third victory in the last six races.

“This one just goes to my team,” Custer said. “The car was unbelievable at the end. They knew exactly what to do with it when the track changed and I was just lucky to drive it there at the end.”

Stage 1 winner: Christopher Bell

Stage 2 winner: Christopher Bell

Who had a bad race: Austin Cindric started on the pole and was running in the top five when he got loose underneath Justin Haley‘s car and backed into the wall in Turn 3 on Lap 55. Cindric went on to finish 14th. … Brandon Jones ran in the top five much of the race until an engine issue on Lap 106 ended his race. Jones finished 30th.

Who had a good race: The Big 3 (Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick) went 1-2-3. Michael Annett’s fourth-place finish was his third top-five in the last five races. … Ryan Truex finished eighth in just his second start of the season. … Ryan Sieg‘s ninth-place run was his first top 10 in the last six races.

Notable: All five of Cole Custer’s wins this season have come in the last 13 races. He had two wins in his first 75 series starts.

Next: July 20 at New Hampshire at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Friday 5: Recent winners share long journey to Victory Lane

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Recent races reaffirm Ross Chastain’s message to young drivers.

“I still tell people to chase it,” he said of going after their dreams of competing at racing’s highest levels.

Chastain is among three drivers who overcame long odds early in their careers to win NASCAR races within the last month. Coincidence? Sure, but it also shows how perseverance can be rewarded.

Chastain, who has driven for low-budget teams and saw a full-time Xfinity ride go away in the offseason because of a sponsor’s legal issues, won last weekend’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway and won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race last month at Gateway.

Brett Moffitt, the reigning Truck champion whose career early was plagued by lack of funds, won last month at Chicagoland Speedway.

Alex Bowman, who once found out he had lost a Cup ride on Twitter and spent time as a sim driver for Hendrick Motorsports, scored his first Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway.

“All of us … have been in bad situations in their career,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “Some people, they get that good opportunity, and when that falls through, they just don’t have the willpower to fight back and do what you have to do to survive. It sucks, I’ll admit it.

“I’ve been in really bad equipment at times and it’s really frustrating and you find yourself asking why you’re doing this, and you just keep working away and hoping the right opportunity comes back.

“I think that’s what you’ve seen between Alex, Ross and myself. We’ve all paid our dues and done the bad stuff. Fortunately, we all find ourselves in a good position now.”

Chastain admits there is no guarantee that someone can climb the ranks that he, Moffitt and Bowman have, but the odds are worse if one doesn’t try.

“It might be six months, it might be six years, it might never happen,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the same way if you graduate college today and you try to go get a job. You’re not guaranteed to go find a job, not the one you want. So you might have to take a start-and-park job.”

Chastain had to start and park in the Truck Series, but he doesn’t regret it.

“You run 10 laps all weekend, but … you have a whole year to think about the track,” he said. “I see so much value in track time and laps on track.”

Moffitt was without a ride in 2017 when Red Horse Racing shut down after the fifth race of the Truck season. He later ran seven races for BK Racing in Cup.

“You’re just doing it for money,” Moffitt said of taking a ride with the low-budget Cup team that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before being sold during the 2018 season. “I did it at the end of ’17 after Red Horse shut down and I went and raced for BK Racing simply to pay bills. You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do to pay rent and to keep yourself relevant in the sport. It kept me going through the offseason and fortunately I landed the job at Hattori (Racing) the following year.”

That led to the Truck Series title.

It’s a crown he looks to defend with GMS Racing. One of his main challengers will be Chastain, who is with Niece Motorsports.

Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.

“Something like Alex, I’d always heard him for years say Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is not going to call me, but (Hendrick) did,” Chastain said. “I think the same thing. Chip Ganassi is not going to ask to be in his Cup car. The Xfinity car, yeah, but that was a whole different situation. He’s never going to ask me to be in his Cup car, but I’ve got to keep trying. I’ll be there if they ever need me.

“Running this truck race and the Cup race Saturday night and running in the 30s will help me if that day ever comes. If not, I got to run a freaking Cup race and I got to come here with the opportunity to win in the Trucks.”

Chastain also has a sense of perspective when he looks at where he’s come.

“Go back one year and look at all that has happened,” he said, standing on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. “One year ago … I was just racing and having fun.”

Now he’s having more fun winning. Just like Moffitt and Bowman.

2. Lightning strikes at Daytona

More than 40 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway during a two-hour period Sunday, according to data from Earth Networks and the company’s Total Lightning Network.

The lightning strikes were recorded from just before NASCAR stopped last weekend’s Cup race to shortly before series officials declared the race finished.

NASCAR’s policy is to stop all activity at a track for any lightning within an 8-mile radius of the facility.

Randy Smith, Homeland Security Specialist for Earth Networks, told NBC Sports that the first lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway was recorded at 3:12 p.m. ET. That strike was located about 6.3 miles east of the track in the Ormond Beach area.

Cars were called to pit road soon after and the race was stopped at 3:18 p.m. ET, according to NASCAR.

There were nearly 30 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:12 – 3:45 p.m. ET Smith said, according to data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network.

The network recorded no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:46 – 4:23 p.m. Drivers were back in their cars and close to restarting their engines when another lightning strike hit within the 8-mile radius.

Smith said data showed there was a lightning strike 6.7 miles south of the track at 4:23 p.m. About 10 lightning strikes within the 8-mile radius soon followed. Rain later followed.

NASCAR receives direct notifications from The Weather Company in Atlanta throughout a race weekend. There is a dedicated senior meteorologist at The Weather Company who is on call throughout the weekend with NASCAR. NASCAR also is in contact with representatives from law enforcement, medical support and other local, state and federal agencies monitoring weather conditions.

3. New Daytona class

This season’s Daytona points races saw a unique winning class.

Three of the five points race winners at Daytona International Speedway this year scored their first series win: Austin Hill in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Michael Annett in the February Xfinity race, and Justin Haley in the July Cup race.

Ross Chastain won the July Xfinity race, giving him his second career series victory. The outlier this year was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who scored his 32nd career win with that victory.

Since 2017, five of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored their first series win. Joining Hill, Annett and Haley on that list are Erik Jones (2018 July Cup race) and Kaz Grala (2017 Truck race).

Since 2017, 11 of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored either their first or second series win with the victory. Those that scored their second career series win at Daytona were: Chastain, Tyler Reddick (2018 February Xfinity race), Austin Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Ryan Reed (2017 February Xfinity race), William Byron (2017 July Xfinity race) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 July Cup race).

4. Deal or no deal?

Justin Haley said he’s received offers for additional Cup races since he won last weekend’s rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

But Haley has said no deal to all of them. He’s not scheduled to run another Cup race this year and that’s fine with him.

“I’m so focused on the Xfinity stuff, and I really don’t like jumping out and doing a lot of extra races,” he said. “I just like to focus where my job is at.”

But what about the extra track time he could get?

“In my deal, I think the only place I can be super competitive (with Spire Motorsports) are the super speedways because of the 10-inch spoiler,” he said. “I think we saw at Talladega I was very competitive and I wrecked the race car that was our backup car that we took to Daytona. It was just as fast. I could have went up there and raced. I could have competed in the top 10 all day, but they were three wide and I didn’t want to put myself in that position because I already wrecked one of their car cars.

“It was so hard to keep in the back because I definitely could have went up there and raced. Everyone was like a back marker won … it was a personal and team decision to run in the back because we knew there would be a big one. I think taking that car to a mile and a-half probably wouldn’t be helpful for me. And those cars are so much easier to drive than Xfinity cars with the downforce and everything, you’re pretty much wide open. The Xfinity cars are the hardest cars to drive right now.”

The deal Haley wants is on the winning car. He wants to buy it but the team has such few cars it’s not willing to part with the car at this time.

“I’m in talks to get it,” Haley said. “It’s my first win car. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll probably end up with it somehow, if I have to buy another car (for the team) or whatnot.

Once Haley gets the car, where will he put it?

“I’d probably knock a wall down,” he said, “and put it in my living room.”

5. How times change

This weekend marks the ninth year Cup has raced at Kentucky Speedway but only about a third of the drivers who competed in that inaugural Cup race in 2011 are still in the series.

Twenty-nine of the 43 starts are no longer competing in Cup. That includes drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and David Reutimann, who finished second in that race to Kyle Busch.

The 14 drivers who ran in that race and remain in the series are Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell.

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Tonight’s Xfinity race at Daytona: Start time, lineup and more

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have combined to win the last nine Xfinity Series races heading into tonight’s event at Daytona International Speedway. Each has won three races during this stretch.

Will their dominance continue? Or will there be a new winner? Michael Annett scored his first series win in February at Daytona. Can he sweep Daytona?

Here’s all the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: David Morgan, vice president of Circle K, will give the command to start engines at 7:23 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 7:35 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 1 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 3:25 p.m. Qualifying is at 3:45 p.m. Driver introductions are at 6:45 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:16 p.m. by Sonny Gallman, pastor, Central Baptist Church, Daytona Beach. Kelly Parsons Kwiatek will perform the National Anthem at 7:17 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 100 laps (250 miles) around the 2.5-mile track.

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

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with NASCAR America. Countdown to Green airs at 7 p.m. The Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 7 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for mostly cloudy skies with a high of 84 degrees and a 17% chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Kyle Larson won this race a year ago, finishing ahead of Elliott Sadler and Christopher Bell. Justin Haley was the first to cross the finish line but was penalized for passing below the double yellow lines. Michael Annett won in February, finishing ahead of Justin Allgaier and Brandon Jones

STARTING LINEUP: Defending series champion Tyler Reddick will start on the pole. Click here for the starting lineup.

NBC Sports Power rankings: Martin Truex Jr. is unanimous No. 1

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This week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings were thrown into disarray.

The culprit? The first road course race of the year.

While Martin Truex Jr. is the unanimous leader of the power rankings after his fourth win of the year Sunday at Sonoma, there are six new drivers in the top 10 from the last Cup ranking after Michigan.

The biggest jump comes from Denny Hamlin, who went from unranked after the Michigan race two weeks ago to third this week. Kevin Harvick also went from unranked to the top five.

Another of the new additions is Ross Chastain, who earned his second Truck Series win at Gateway a week after an inspection failure took a win away in Iowa.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (40 points): Has matched his 2018 win total with four wins over the last eight races. The only driver with multiple wins in that stretch.  Last time: 3rd

2. Kyle Busch (36 points): Scored his fourth consecutive top-five finish but couldn’t catch teammate Martin Truex Jr. at the end at Sonoma.  Last time: Tie for 1st

3. Denny Hamlin (26 points): Has not finished worse than 11th in the last three races and scored the most points at Sonoma. Last time: Not ranked

4. Joey Logano (21 points): Despite an alternator issue and a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma, still has seven top 10s in the last nine races and leads the points. Last time: Tie for 1st

5. Kevin Harvick (20 points): Lacked winning Sonoma speed of past three years but at least put together a strong sixth-place finish. Last time: Not ranked (was in others receiving votes).

6. Ryan Blaney (15 points):  Earned first top five since Bristol and his second straight top five on a road course. Last time: Not ranked

7. Matt DiBenedetto (12 points): As the whispers about his Cup future begin to swirl again, his first career top five was a statement. Last time: Not ranked

8. Ryan Newman (11 points): Seventh-place finish was his second top 10 in a row. He’s completed all but eight laps this season to rank third in most laps run (behind only Busch and Logano). Last time: Not ranked

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick (9 points): Xfinity didn’t race last weekend but stays in the top 10 as numerous Cup drivers had off days at Sonoma. Last time: Tie for 6th

(tie) 9. Ross Chastain (9 points): His watermelon smash counted in Gateway when his winning truck passed inspection, giving him two wins this year. Previously: Unranked in normal Cup power rankings, but ranked 4th in Xfinity/Trucks ranking.

Others Receiving Votes: Aric Almirola (6 points), Kyle Larson (5 points), Brad Keselowski (5 points), Chase Elliott (3 points), Chris Buescher (1 point) and Todd Gilliland (1 point).

 

Bump & Run: Who is having a better season? Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch?

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With four wins apiece, which Joe Gibbs Racing driver is having the better season, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr.?

Nate Ryan: The points, playoff points and top 10 tallies point to Busch, but Truex gets this nod because he is improving as the season unfolds while making a largely seamless transition to Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota has been more consistently excellent, but Truex’s No. 19 team seems slightly more playoff ready.

Dustin Long: It’s easy to get the sense that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are figuring things out, but I’ll take Kyle Busch for having the better season at this point. Busch has led more laps, had more top-three finishes, more top-five finishes and more top-10 finishes than Truex.

Daniel McFadin: Truex has won four of the last eight races, but he struggles in the races following his wins. Meanwhile Kyle Busch has been incredibly consistent through 16 races, failing to finish outside the top 10 just once at Kansas. We’re still waiting to see Busch find his kryptonite.

Jerry Bonkowski: Busch is having a statistically better season than Truex and has been at or near the top of the points for much of the season, but they’re equal where it counts the most. What’s more, they play off each other so well, you’d never know they’re first-year teammates.

 

Do stages need to be re-evaluated for road-course races, particularly Sonoma?

Nate Ryan: Yes. There has been only one “natural” caution over the past 246 miles of Cup racing at Sonoma Raceway. It seems as if having two scheduled yellows in a race that emphasizes strategy might be adversely disrupting the driver behavior and rhythm of an event in which action can be dependent on the randomness of cautions (and this could apply to any race that features green-flag pit stops without losing a lap). While the Sophie’s Choice of going for the win vs. amassing points adds an interesting wrinkle, it also seems too preordained and rote, eliminating some of the tactical genius and unexpected twists that make road-course racing fun.

Dustin Long: I’m not convinced this needs to be done. I do like seeing which teams will toss aside potential stage points for the chance to go for the win and pit shortly before a stage break. If nothing else, stage breaks do provide two restarts and restarts are often some of the most exciting moments in a race. You really want to eliminate two restarts a race?

Daniel McFadin: I think so. With NASCAR keeping in place that caution laps during stage breaks count towards the lap count, Stage 2 at Sonoma had only 15 competitive laps under green compared to the first stage’s 20. I’d add five laps to the second stage there and have the final stage be 45 laps. It’s still significantly longer than the first two stages. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Personally, I feel stages don’t work well in road course races, especially at a place like Sonoma, which saw a half-mile larger track this year for the first time in more than 20 years (due to adding the Carousel). Road course races should be a constant, moving episode and not interrupted by stages. And if it proves fans like the racing more without stages, it may be something to look at when the major changes come around in 2021. 

 

With the first Cup race of the year on a road course behind us, what’s one road course you’d like added to the Cup schedule?

Nate Ryan: Road America already has proved worthy of the Xfinity Series and also provides a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader opportunity. If the category were expanded to street races, Toronto already hosts stock cars with NASCAR’s Canadian series.

Dustin Long: Road America. 

Daniel McFadin: Laguna Seca, baby! It was my favorite road course as a kid and I’d love to see a Cup car navigating its variety of turns, especially the Corkscrew. Would three California Cup races, with two on road courses be healthy for the sport? Probably not. But I still want to see it.

Jerry Bonkowski: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, or Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. I’d be happy with either — actually I’d be the happiest if both were on the schedule.

 

What has been the best story in NASCAR this season?

Nate Ryan: Ross Chastain, and if there’s justice in the near future, his story should continue to unfold on a bigger stage than a third-tier series.

Dustin Long: The development and domination of the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series — Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — and the questions of where they’ll race next season.

Daniel McFadin: Without a doubt Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports. With its Gateway win, the small team will more than likely compete in the Truck Series playoffs. They could deliver a second consecutive Truck Series title from an underfunded team as the giants of the series – Kyle Busch Motorsports, GMS Racing and ThorSport Racing – struggle to find victory lane with their full-time drivers. If you’re a fan of old school motorsports stories, there’s one playing out with this team.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a close call, but I am going to go with Tyler Reddick having a slight edge over Kyle Busch in best overall story of 2019.