NASCAR Barometer: Rookie Custer Beats the Veterans in Kentucky

NASCAR Barometer: Rookie Custer Beats the Veterans in Kentucky

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

The impressive NASCAR Cup series rookie class has been a highlight of the 2020 season so far, and Cole Custer seized his opportunity to grab the spotlight and find his way into Victory Lane in Sunday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was consistently in the top 10 throughout the afternoon, finished third in the second stage and then used a monstrous move on the outside to pass both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. on the white-flag lap to score his first win in the series and become the first rookie to win at Kentucky and to visit Victory Lane so far this season. The win immediately boosts him into playoff contention and is just the start of what fans should expect to see from this remarkable rookie class of 2020. 

This week, the series attempts a new twist on the traditional All-Star race weekend, trading Charlotte Motor Speedway for Bristol. The traditional All-Star Open will proceed the All-Star race main event Wednesday with a million-dollar paycheck on hand for the winner. While the rules package is the same short-track configuration for the 2020 season, there will be a few tweaks to keep things interesting in this midweek showdown before points racing takes center stage again next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

UPGRADE

Cole Custer Cole Custer made an incredible last-lap pass to claim his first win as a rookie in the NASCAR Cup series. Just one week ago he scored his best series

The impressive NASCAR Cup series rookie class has been a highlight of the 2020 season so far, and Cole Custer seized his opportunity to grab the spotlight and find his way into Victory Lane in Sunday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was consistently in the top 10 throughout the afternoon, finished third in the second stage and then used a monstrous move on the outside to pass both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. on the white-flag lap to score his first win in the series and become the first rookie to win at Kentucky and to visit Victory Lane so far this season. The win immediately boosts him into playoff contention and is just the start of what fans should expect to see from this remarkable rookie class of 2020. 

This week, the series attempts a new twist on the traditional All-Star race weekend, trading Charlotte Motor Speedway for Bristol. The traditional All-Star Open will proceed the All-Star race main event Wednesday with a million-dollar paycheck on hand for the winner. While the rules package is the same short-track configuration for the 2020 season, there will be a few tweaks to keep things interesting in this midweek showdown before points racing takes center stage again next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

UPGRADE

Cole Custer Cole Custer made an incredible last-lap pass to claim his first win as a rookie in the NASCAR Cup series. Just one week ago he scored his best series finish at Indianapolis with a top-five, which was just his second top-10 this season. It was another mature drive from the young driver who now has his spot in the playoffs secure after entering Sunday's race 25th in the series standings. It was a huge day for the first-year driver who became the first to win as a rookie at Kentucky in the series on a day that he led his first laps, too. The win also gives him entry into this week's All-Star race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a marquee event at which he can attempt to atone for crashing out at the track earlier this year.

Aric Almirola – Almirola won his second stage of the season after a dominating opening to Sunday's Quaker State 400. He went on to command much of the second stage but ultimately lost track position and was unable to move up within the top 10 during the final segment but ultimately ended up finishing eighth after multiple restarts. While the finish wasn't what Almirola probably expected after his early race pace, it was still his fifth consecutive top-10 finish in an incredible run of consistency that should see him in playoff contention through the final eight races of the regular season. In 22 career Bristol starts he has just three top-10s. He has also finished outside of the top 20 in six of his last seven visits to the track.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski used a late restart, holding off teammate Ryan Blaney, in the second stage to thwart Aric Almirola's domination of the early portion of Sunday's Quaker State 400. From that springboard he remained among the top five for the rest of the race and survived a scrappy final few restarts to finish ninth. It was Keselowski's third top-10 finish from the last five races and will now look to win Wednesday's All-Star race for a million-dollar pay day before getting back to the grind the following weekend in Texas. Keselowski has three career wins at Bristol, including earlier this season when he led 115 laps and stole a late victory. He has two wins so far this season and will no doubt be a contender in the season-ending playoff eliminations. 

Kevin Harvick - Harvick used a big push from Brad Keselowski on a late caution to power to the lead with less than 15 laps remaining, but that return to the front after battling handling issues much of the afternoon proved to be unsustainable. That penultimate restart set up a battle between him and Martin Truex Jr. before yet another restart positioned the pair on the front row to duel for the win. As the two battled door-to-door Cole Custer swept around the outside to pass both, leaving Harvick with a respectable and hard-earned fourth-place finish. It was a gritty afternoon from the No. 4 team who fought tooth and nail to squeak out a top-five finish on an afternoon they struggled. Afternoons like this team had demonstrate championship pedigree.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch - Kyle Busch's 2020 season woes continued Sunday in Kentucky, a track where he had experienced a lot of success in the past. Like much of the season so far, Busch raced within the top 10 but stepped over the line when trying to push too hard. Slight contact with the outside wall left him with minor damage and hampered his ability to move to the front. It hasn't been a great season for Busch so far, and while he remains in playoff contention his fate is not secure until he gets that elusive win. He finished fourth and led 100 laps at Bristol earlier this season. While the All-Star race victory wouldn't guarantee him a spot in the playoffs it may be just enough to swing his momentum into a more positive direction for the last nine regular-season races.

Jimmie Johnson – After overcoming a Covid-19 scare that held him out of the Brickyard 400 two weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson returned to racing and was a top-10 stalwart throughout Sunday's race in Kentucky. On a late restart as he was pushing Ryan Blaney he attempted to block a run by Brad Keselowski that ended up with Johnson spinning into the infield and to the back of the field for the final 15 laps of the race. His chances to win were gone after that incident and the afternoon ended with an 18th-place finish after and effort that nearly paid off in a top-five finish. While luck wasn't on his side on Sunday, Johnson continues to demonstrate speed and could find himself in position to win before the season is over. He has two Bristol wins from 37 career starts and he finished third there earlier this season.

Chase Elliott – Elliott endured a frustrating afternoon Sunday in Kentucky. His first issue was a slow pit stop due to a jack issue dropped him out of the lead pack. After that he remained mired in the pack without much ability to move forward, ultimately falling a lap behind the leaders. By the finish he opted to take the wave-around to move back onto the lead lap but only managed to finish 23rd in a very disappointing showing for the No. 9 team. His playoff spot is not in jeopardy thanks to his win in Charlotte, but his current trend definitely shows a slump. With just one top-10 finish in the last five races Elliott is on his worst stretch of the 2020 season so far. He has a mid-week opportunity to reverse that trend at Bristol in the All-Star race and needs to get things fixed for next weekend's race at Texas.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth went from his best finish since returning to the Cup series two weeks ago in Indianapolis right back to the doldrums this past week at Kentucky. While racing in the pack Kenseth spun after contact with Ryan Newman in the closing stages of Sunday's race. The contact solidified a disappointing afternoon for the former champion and left him as the second to last driver on the lead lap with a 25th-place finish. It was Kenseth's second finish in the last five races that was lower than 20th an highlights the work that remains for him to return to consistently challenging for top finishes. Being a former series champion gives him an entry in the Wednesday's main event at Bristol, a track where he has four wins. 

Erik Jones – A year of ups and downs continued in Kentucky for Jones. As he battles at the cut-off line for the playoff positions he needs better finishes than what he got on Sunday. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has not risen to the heights many expected of him yet in 2020, and Sunday's 22nd-place finish is his third finish outside of the top 20 in the last five races. Without a win to fall back on Jones must be scoring consistent top-15 finishes to work his way into playoff contention. Only eight races remain for him to fix the struggles he has been having or grab a win to punch his ticket to the championship battle. He will be in the All-Star race at Bristol by virtue of his win at Darlington last season and needs to use that to get his championship quest back on track.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Matt DiBenedetto – DiBenedetto earned his second top-five finish of the season and second top-10 in the last three races with a third-place finish in Sunday's Quaker State 400. It was an impressive afternoon from the Wood Brothers Racing driver as he adapts to a new team and better equipment than he has had for most of his career thus far. His efforts so far, as the playoffs quickly approach, have earned him a spot in the elimination rounds of the 2020 championship battle, which is his best season to date in his sixth year in the series. DiBenedetto should be favored to advance to the main event Wednesday in Bristol. He finished second at the track last fall and led four laps before a pit road speeding penalty upended his race.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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