Show of hands, who had Cole Custer as the first rookie to win a NASCAR Cup Series race in 2020?
In a dramatic final lap to an otherwise uneventful race, Custer beat Cup stars Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to become the first rookie to secure a full-length Cup triumph since 2007.
With a random draw, Kyle Busch started on the pole ahead of Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson, returning to the driver’s seat after missing last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 with COVID-19, started twentieth. Truex and Matt Kenseth failed inspection twice and were sent to the rear.
Unlike the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races earlier in the weekend, the Cup race’s opening laps went by without incident as Busch led the way.
On lap 10, the #10 of Aric Almirola took the lead. To continue the numbers game, Truex entered the top 20 by, you guessed it, lap 20.
At the competition caution on lap 25, Almirola led Busch and Logano. On pit road, Logano beat Busch for second, while Ty Dillon received a penalty for a commitment line violation.
The race resumed on lap 31 as Almirola continued to lead. Outside of Timmy Hill falling off the pace and going to the garage when he lost an alternator belt, it was a a relatively quiet stage as Almirola led all the way to the segment win. He led 71 laps in the stage, more than in any of his Cup races up to that point.
Chase Elliott, Logano, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, Harvick, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Truex also received stage points.
Dillon suffered a second penalty for speeding between stages. Almirola continued to hold his lead as the second stage began, and the Florida native remained in front before being passed by Blaney on lap 138 and began to fall.
Among fans, the racing failed to impress. Kentucky had applied PJ1 traction compound to the surface, though it still proved difficult to pass. Over the radio, Kenseth questioned the package used.
Incidentally, Kenseth would bring out the next caution when he spun on lap 154 due to air leaking out of a tyre. The yellow set up a one-lap sprint to the finish that Brad Keselowski won.
Behind him were Blaney, Custer, Logano, Truex, Bowman, Austin Dillon, Johnson, DiBenedetto, and Erik Jones. Almirola fell from seventh to fifteenth during the scramble.
The final stage commenced on lap 167 as Keselowski led.
Shortly after, Kyle Busch saved his car from hitting the wall off turn four. However, he reported his machine was “broken” over the radio.
It has been a frustrating 2020 for the reigning Cup champion, who still has yet to win a race even as the season approaches the halfway point.
Truex took the lead from Keselowski on lap 180.
On lap 229, Brennan Poole‘s left-rear tyre went down and Dillon ran over its debris, sending the latter spinning in turn four for the yellow. The sixth caution of the day came out 14 laps later for John Hunter Nemechek hitting the turn two wall.
A restart with 19 to go was aborted when Johnson was spun out of third by Keselowski while attempting to block as they crossed the start/finish line. Blaney edged out Truex to remain the leader for the ensuing yellow flag.
“I do look forward to my next restart behind @keselowski though,” Johnson remarked on Twitter.
The penultimate restart of the day came on lap 254. Entering turn one, a bold move by Harvick propelled him to the lead. Six laps later, Kenseth spun off turn four while racing Ryan Newman and through the tri-oval grass for the final caution.
Harvick and Truex led the field to the last green flag with two laps left. However, as they took the white flag, Custer initiated a four-wide battle on the outside line that ended with the rookie clearing them and Blaney.
As Harvick fell back, Custer held off Truex to score his maiden Cup victory in his twentieth career start. The California native had been twenty-fifth in the standings, but the win elevates him by five positions; regardless of his current points spot, he is now locked into the playoffs.
Custer is the first Cup rookie to win a race since Chris Buescher‘s fog-shortened Pocono Raceway victory in 2016, but the first to win a race that ran the full distance since Juan Pablo Montoya‘s 2007 win at Sonoma Raceway (Trevor Bayne was not racing for Rookie of the Year honours when he won the 2011 Daytona 500, while Keselowski was a part-time driver when he won the 2009 Aaron’s 499).
If one were to factor Montoya out due to his extensive road racing experience, the last Cup rookie winner on an oval in a full-length event is Denny Hamlin at Pocono in 2006. Should triangle courses not count, Custer is the first premier series rookie victor on a “true” oval since Busch at Auto Club Speedway in 2005. In a case of going full circle, he is the first such winner on a 1.5-mile oval since his Stewart-Haas Racing team-mate Harvick won at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway in 2001 (Jamie McMurray was not racing full-time when he won in just his second Cup start at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002).
“I just knew I had to get to the top,” Custer said in a post-race press conference. “I knew I didn’t want to get put three-wide. My spotter, Andy Houston, did a great job. He kept me in the right spots and everything. Those few restarts before, I had gone to the top before, it worked out really good. You’re able to keep so much momentum up. I was like, ‘I just got to get to the top here, we’ll see what happens.’ #4 and #19 got together. Opened the door for me to get a lot of momentum on them. Played into our favour.”
He is also the thirty-third driver to win a race across all three NASCAR national series and the second in 2020 after Justin Haley. The victory comes at a perfect time as he and Haley are now locked into the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday.
Custer added, “To be in the All-Star Race right now takes a lot of stress off. Who knows, maybe we can go win the $1 million. We were solid at Bristol before. Ended up getting wrecked. We obviously have a lot of confidence now in what we’re doing. Just got to keep it going.”
Considering the odd backgrounds of the Xfinity and Truck race winners (road course expert Austin Cindric swept the Xfinity doubleheader for his first oval wins, while Sheldon Creed won his first NASCAR national series event in the Trucks), it is perhaps fitting that a Cup first-time winner join them in the weekend’s celebrations.