In a race that produced a last-lap pass for the win, a record 13 cautions and an unmitigated disaster for favorite son Christopher Bell, Cole Custer moved past Tyler Reddick on the backstretch to win Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Custer’s first victory of the season gave the driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford an automatic berth in the Nov. 17 NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Custer dominated last year in winning for the first time in the series.
Reddick led the field to green with two laps left, after the 13th caution, and held the top spot until Custer mounted a strong run off Turn 2 on Lap 200. The cars made side-to-side contact on the backstretch before Reddick surrendered the position, and Custer held on to win by .162 seconds, the third closest finish in an Xfinity Series race at Texas.
With his first victory of the season and the second of his career, Custer is the first of the Round of 8 drivers to clinch a chance at the championship in the season finale.
“I can’t believe it,” Custer said. “I did all I could and drove in deeper than I had all weekend into Turn 1 (on the final lap) trying to get on (Reddick’s) bumper, and it worked out.
“We’re going to Homestead, and I think we have a great chance to win it. It’s just awesome. We haven’t won this year, but we’ve been so close. It’s been frustrating, but we’ve kept going. There’s no better time to do it.”
Bell’s stunning run of ill fortune continued at Texas. Two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway, in the first race in the Round of 8, Justin Allgaier wiped him out in Turn 2 of the first lap. On Saturday, after winning the pole, Bell spun out of control — again in Turn 2 of the first lap.
Though Bell recovered to finish fourth in Stage 1 and fifth in Stage 2, his recovery was short-lived. The coup de grace came on Lap 133 when eventual third-place finisher Austin Cindric pushed up the track slightly, clipped the back-left quarter of Bell’s No. 20 Toyota and sent it sliding into the outside wall.
Resulting suspension damage knocked Bell out of the race in 32nd place at the speedway closest to his Norman, Oklahoma, home.
“It caught me off guard,” Bell said of the Lap 1 spin. “You saw the same thing from the No. 7 (Allgaier) at Kansas. I didn’t feel like I was up to speed at all. The next thing I knew, I spun out.
“I don’t know, it has to be the tire combination. It’s tricky. There wasn’t much room for error.”
With the Playoff field to be cut from eight drivers to four next Saturday at Phoenix, Bell Faces a 34-point deficit to Daniel Hemric (10th Saturday), who holds fourth place in the standings. A six-time winner as a Sunoco rookie this season, Bell, for practical purposes, must win again.
“This format, it’s very tough and it creates a lot of drama,” Bell said. “I’ve always been proud of myself for winning races, and I’ve won six races this year, and I’ve got a chance to win two more.
“I’m going to go out there and try to win races. I’ve never been a points racer, and my results show for that. I’m either up front or crashing. I’m going to go out and try to win two more races.”
In a race in which fortunes changed radically with differing pit strategies, Hemric won the first stage. But his luck soon took a turn for the worse. Hemric fell back after a Lap 194 restart and was knocked sideways when Richard Childress Racing teammate Shane Lee lost control underneath Hemric’s Chevrolet in Turn 3.
Aside from Custer, no one in the top eight has much breathing room heading to Phoenix. Reddick has a 20-point edge over fifth-place Allgaier, who came home fifth on Saturday. Veteran Elliott Sadler, who ran eighth, is 13 points ahead of Allgaier, his JR Motorsports teammate. Hemric has a 12-point cushion.
But even huge leads can evaporate in a single corner, as Bell has discovered in the last two races.
Last in the Playoff standings and 61 points out of fourth, Cindric must win at ISM Raceway at Phoenix to advance. That’s nothing new for the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, who finished .316 seconds behind Custer.
“I’ve been in a must-win position since Kansas,” Cindric said. “For me, that hasn’t changed.”
Notes: Kansas winner John Hunter Nemechek finished fourth… The 13 cautions broke the previous mark of 10 set in 2003… The closest Xfinity Series finish at Texas came in 2007 when Matt Kenseth beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line by .128 seconds.