A four-wide battle coming to the white flag in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway was the opening Cole Custer needed.
The 22-year-old rookie put his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the outside of Martin Truex Jr., teammate Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney down the frontstretch and had the preferred lane. Blaney got out of shape when he hit the bumps on the apron and shot back up the track into Harvick, which gave Harvick’s car a tire rub. By the time they charged into Turn 1, Custer had already cleared the trio and didn’t look back as he scored his first career win in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“We were so good all day; our car was so good,” said Custer. “It wasn’t the easiest track to pass on, so we were kind of stuck back there, but that was the best car I’ve ever driven in my life. Everybody at SHR brought an unbelievable car. Mike [Shiplett, crew chief] and Davin [Restivo, engineer] on the box, that was unbelievable. Gene [Haas], I can’t stress enough how thankful I am for him taking a shot on me.
“It definitely was not the start to the year that we wanted. We were definitely way off at some places, but this was by far an unbelievable car. We put it all together, and I just can’t thank everybody enough.”
Truex finished second with Matt DiBenedetto taking third. DiBenedetto had shoved Custer to the outside lane of three-wide a lap earlier when the race restarted with two laps to go, which moved Custer from sixth into fourth. Harvick crossed the finish line fourth, followed by Kurt Busch in fifth.
Blaney slipped to a sixth-place finish. He and Truex were two of the best cars in the final stage and were up front with less than 40 laps to go. They were lined up on the front row for a restart with 19 laps to go, Truex leading, when the caution quickly flew again because of a Jimmie Johnson spin behind them. NASCAR deemed Blaney was the leader by inches.
On the next restart with 13 laps to go, Harvick made it three-wide into Turn 1 to steal the lead from Blaney and Truex. Truex was pressuring Harvick and underneath him with seven laps to go when the final caution flew. Again, Truex had been inches away from being deemed the leader by NASCAR.
Harvick took the outside for the restart with two laps to go, putting Truex on the inside. The two were battling down the backstretch when Custer began pressuring on the outside and Blaney on the inside. The fight for the win continued at the white flag.
Christopher Bell finished seventh with Aric Almirola eighth, Brad Keselowski ninth, and Tyler Reddick 10th. Almirola won the first stage and led the most laps Sunday afternoon, 128.
Truex led 57 laps and Keselowski, who won the second stage, led 34. Blaney led 18 laps and Harvick 11.
In his win, Custer led five laps. The four he led before the last one came during a round of green-flag pit stops.