Cole Custer barely qualified for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Round while crossing the Martinsville Speedway finish line backwards and on fire. A week later, he crossed the Phoenix Raceway finish in the right direction and for the championship. While his car was not ablaze this time, his liver probably was from the beers he chugged to celebrate his maiden title.
To win the championship, Custer simply needed to beat Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer, and John Hunter Nemechek regardless of where the rest of the field finished. Of course, this was easier said than done as Custer had yet to win on an oval in 2023 and Anthony Alfredo‘s wreck with three laps remaining set up a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
The quartet occupied the top four coming to the restart with Custer and Nemechek on the front row. Riding the outside line with Allgaier in tow, Custer was quickly swamped by the other three before they ran four-abreast coming to the white flag. Custer cleared Allgaier before Riley Herbst and Sheldon Creed, the latter having been eliminated from title contention at Martinsville in a photo finish by Allgaier, showed up to force a battle for second. As Creed returned the favour to beat Allgaier for the runner-up spot in yet another dead heat, Custer pulled away to seal the victory.
“This place, it’s always a toss-up, top or bottom. I went with my gut on the top because the resin started working in, but just didn’t work out,” explained Custer. “The #7 (Allgaier) was able to get to our outside and I tried to block him but from there I was kind of in a tough spot being in the middle. I just tried to make sure I got a good exit and downshifted it and tried to make it off turn two. We were able to get a good run and make it happen there. I don’t think it would happen again. But it was just an unbelievable restart that worked out right.
“If we didn’t have the car we had either, it wouldn’t have worked out. We had such a fast car. Historically, this has just been (Joe) Gibbs‘ race track. Those guys put up a great fight, John Hunter and all those guys. But it’s a very proud moment for our team to come here. It hasn’t been our strongest race track. We put it to them.”
Allgaier settled for third to finish second in the standings. He is still seeking his first title, having made the Championship Round every year save for twice since its introduction in 2016. He spun just four laps into the race and had to work his way back into position.
“In hindsight, I guess it wouldn’t have mattered, Sheldon would have won the championship. If I would have just let Sheldon win last week, it would have knocked the #00 out race with all the stuff, and we wouldn’t have had to race Cole. Maybe that was a better plan,” remarked Allgaier, referring to the fact that he had already been assured a spot in the final round entering Martinsville while Creed needed a win to advance. Ironically, Custer likely would have made it to Phoenix anyway as he had a narrow points edge over Austin Hill for the fourth and last spot, though the last-lap crash that collected him and Hill could have also ended differently.
His team-mate Mayer finished fifth to end the season in third.
“It’s hectic out there,” described Mayer. “That first restart before overtime, we were going to finish fourth, and the good Lord above gave us another shot at it. We came up a little bit short, but it was a really cool opportunity to be able to put on a show like that for one, and to even say that I had a shot at the championship is cool. I’m going to come back next year, be even better because that was 100 percent right there for me. I’m going to come back and I’m going to raise my ceiling a little bit more and be better and do the thing.”
Nemechek was the only other Championship Four driver to lead laps on Saturday as he had sixty-six to Custer’s ninety-six, but hit the wall on the final lap as his car was unable to turn. Returning to the Cup Series in 2024, he ends his Xfinity tenure in a disappointing fourth after claiming a series-high seven wins.
“It sucks that it comes down to one race and that this is the way it has to end this year in 2023, but nothing to hang our head on,” Nemechek stated. “We were there all day, led laps, battled with Cole and Justin and Sam and raced each other super hard. It sucks that it comes down to one-race finish, but it is what it is. It’s the cards that are dealt, and you’ve got to play it.
“We were close, but proud of this team, proud of this #20 group. Proud of myself. We executed really well all year. Winning seven races is no easy task, that’s for sure. As a driver, when you come down to the Xfinity Series or Cup Series, when you start a new season, the goal is to make it to Phoenix to have a shot to race for a championship, and we did that. We put ourselves in contention. We put ourselves in position to do it. Just didn’t work out.”
Custer has had a similar career progression to Nemechek, rising the stock car ladder to the Cup Series before dropping back down after a disappointing stint at the top. He was demoted to Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Xfinity programme for 2023, but made the most of his return with three wins.
“When you’re younger, you’re just trying to figure it all out. But once you get older, it’s trying to figure out those little areas where you’re missing it a little bit,” Custer continued. “I think having this year where you get knocked down a little bit and you’re able to sit back and really realise what you need to do better.
“I think I tried to improve all those things this year, trying to work with my team and really get what we needed in the cars, and you’ve just got to keep working at it. I don’t know if I’ve been the guy who always has the most talent, really. I think I can drive a car, but I feel like if you just work at it enough, you can go out and if you have a good group around you, you can go out and make some stuff happen.”
Creed’s second adds yet another chapter to his arduous search for his maiden Xfinity win, having finished runner-up five times in 2023, but he could at least say he got the last laugh as he defeated Hill in his final start at Richard Childress Racing. The two now-former team-mates clashed at Martinsville that prompted a less-than-amicable response from Hill and RCR.
Pole-sitter Sammy Smith clinched Rookie of the Year honours over the unrelated Chandler Smith as he placed sixth in the final standings to Chandler’s ninth.
Although the race saw seven cautions outside of stage breaks, it was especially clean compared to the debacle in the previous night’s Craftsman Truck Series event that garnered signficiant scrutiny from the industry. While the Xfinity race had just one overtime with the Championship Four reaching the finish and racing respectfully, all four Truck title contenders had damage of some form from wrecks—two from taking each other out—while four overtimes took place
“The Championship Four in this deal raced so well. John Hunter, Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer, everybody raced so well,” said Custer. “We raced hard, but we didn’t hit each other. That’s what people should really look at. We were able to make moves and race our tails off and still not wreck each other. It’s just hats off to everybody.
“I think everybody in that Championship Four deserves to be a champion. Justin Allgaier is just an unbelievable race car driver and deserves to be a champion. John Hunter also. What they’ve done this year is unbelievable. Sam Mayer, how much he’s growing. It’s awesome to be a part of that Championship Four, and very proud to be a part of it.”
|1||7||00||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||202||Running|
|2||5||2||Sheldon Creed||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|3||8||7||Justin Allgaier||JR Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|4||9||98||Riley Herbst||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||202||Running|
|5||16||1||Sam Mayer||JR Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|6||15||8||Josh Berry||JR Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|7||2||21||Austin Hill||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|8||6||16||Chandler Smith †||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|9||1||18||Sammy Smith||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||202||Running|
|10||24||26||Kaz Grala||Sam Hunt Racing||Toyota||202||Running|
|11||20||9||Brandon Jones||JR Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|12||18||27||Jeb Burton||Jordan Anderson Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|13||14||31||Parker Retzlaff †||Jordan Anderson Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|14||13||17||Rajah Caruth*||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|15||19||25||Brett Moffitt||AM Racing||Ford||202||Running|
|16||30||48||Parker Kligerman||Big Machine Racing Team||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|17||21||91||Kyle Weatherman||DGM Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|18||11||39||Ryan Sieg||RSS Racing||Ford||202||Running|
|19||17||07||Dawson Cram||SS-Green Light Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|20||25||51||Jeremy Clements||Jeremy Clements Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|21||12||10||Daniel Hemric||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|22||4||19||Myatt Snider||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||202||Running|
|23||34||45||Jeffrey Earnhardt||Alpha Prime Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|24||38||78||Anthony Alfredo||B.J. McLeod Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|25||26||92||Josh Williams||DGM Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|26||27||43||Ryan Ellis||Alpha Prime Racing||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|27||28||35||Joey Gase||Emerling-Gase Motorsports||Ford||202||Running|
|28||3||20||John Hunter Nemechek||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||202||Running|
|29||29||6||Brennan Poole||JD Motorsports||Chevrolet||202||Running|
|30||33||66||Timmy Hill*||MBM Motorsports||Ford||200||Running|
|31||37||28||Joe Graf Jr.||RSS Racing||Ford||200||Running|
|32||32||02||Blaine Perkins †||Our Motorsports||Chevrolet||200||Running|
|33||36||4||Stefan Parsons*||JD Motorsports||Chevrolet||194||Running|
|34||10||24||Connor Mosack||Sam Hunt Racing||Toyota||180||Accident|
|35||31||53||Chris Hacker*||Emerling-Gase Motorsports||Chevrolet||178||Suspension|
|36||35||08||J.J. Yeley||SS-Green Light Racing||Ford||101||Accident|
|37||23||11||Derek Kraus*||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||84||Accident|
|38||22||38||Kyle Sieg||RSS Racing||Ford||14||Vibration|
|DNQ||44||Leland Honeyman||Alpha Prime Racing||Chevrolet|
|DNQ||74||Brad Pérez||CHK Racing||Chevrolet|
Underline – Championship Round
Italics – Rookie of the Year
† – Competed for Rookie of the Year