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Rookie steals show with four-wide pass at Kentucky Speedway. 'Best car I ever drove.'

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 7/12/2020 By Mark Story, Lexington Herald-Leader
a man holding a sign: Cole Custer, driver of the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday, July 12, 2020 in Sparta, Kentucky. © Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America/TNS Cole Custer, driver of the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday, July 12, 2020 in Sparta, Kentucky.

SPARTA, Ky. — On a restart with two laps to go, some of the biggest names in NASCAR — Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski — were at the front of the field racing for the Quaker State 400 win.

Yet in the second-straight, heart-pumping finish to a Cup race in Sparta, it was rookie Cole Custer who stole the show.

In a four-wide battle for the win with Harvick, Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney going into the first turn on the white-flag lap, Custer got through a narrow opening on the outside going into the first turn and made it stick.

Custer, a 22-year-old Californian, won the 10th running of the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart. He is the first rookie to win a Cup race at Kentucky Speedway and the first rookie to win a Cup race anywhere since 2016.

“Best car I ever drove in my life,” Custer said afterward. “We were so good all day.”

The race was run in front of empty grandstands at the Sparta racetrack. As part of the efforts to contain the coronavirus, fans were not allowed to attend.

Custer’s late move to the outside denied Truex Jr. what would have been his third Quaker State 400 win in the past four years.

“The 41 came with a big run (on the outside) and I didn’t see him coming,” Truex Jr. said. “It was unfortunate.”

A year ago, the Quaker State 400 win was decided by a paint-trading, green-white-checker finish in which Kurt Busch edged his younger brother Kyle Busch at the finish line.

Conventional wisdom was that finish would be impossible to top in 2020.

But a four-wide battle for the win going into the first turn of the final lap was not bad.

Truex Jr. held on for second place. Matt DiBenedetto finished third, Harvick fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.

Blaney dropped back to sixth and Keselowski ninth.

Aric Almirola — who came to Sparta riding a streak of five-straight top-five finishes — dominated stage one of the race. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver got around pole-sitter Kyle Busch on Lap 11, and led the remaining 69 laps of the stage.

The second stage started in the same way — with Almirola dominating. However, the Florida native’s No. 10 Ford fell off late in a green flag run and Blaney and Joey Logano each got around.

It was Keselowski who ended up winning stage two, though, thanks to pit strategy and a fortunately timed caution.

Custer won the Xfinity Series Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway last year — a win remembered by many for what happened to the driver in victory circle.

He fell off the side of his car in a celebration gone wrong.

On Sunday, Custer left everyone viewing on television with an unforgettable move to secure his first career Cup victory.

“This place is my track,” he said afterward of Kentucky Speedway. “Got this place figured out.”

— Before the race, Kentucky Speedway honored Jimmie Johnson by naming a street on the grounds of the Sparta racetrack for the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. Johnson has announced this will be his final season as a full-time Cup Series driver.

— After their cars each failed inspection twice, two past Quaker State 400 champions — Martin Truex Jr. (2017 and 2018) and Matt Kenseth (2013) — had to start the race from the back.

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©2020 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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