After an overtime restart that saw title contenders engage in a breathtaking three-wide battle down the backstretch, Cole Custer deftly negotiated a tightly bunched pack of cars to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship race and the series title on Saturday at Phoenix Raceway.
The victory was the third of the season for Custer, who returned to full-time Xfinity Series racing this year after a lackluster three-year stint in the NASCAR Cup Series that produced a single victory.
But Custer proved his mettle after slipping from first to third in the running order moments after the final restart. Championship 4 driver John Hunter Nemechek held a fleeting lead but couldn‘t turn his No. 20 Toyota in Turn 1 and lost the top spot to title contender Just Allgaier.
Custer steered his No. 00 Stewart Haas Racing Ford to the inside of Allgaier‘s Chevrolet as the three championship hopefuls raced side-by-side down the backstretch before Custer emerged with the lead. A lap later, Custer crossed the finish line 0.601 seconds ahead of charging Sheldon Creed and another 0.007 seconds ahead of Allgaier to win for the first time at Phoenix and the 13th time in his career.
“I thought it was over,” said Custer, who had two previous runner-up finishes in the series standings. “I mean, went from first to third, and I was able to shift the car all night. And Doug Yates horsepower worked out, pulled me off the corner. I can’t believe we won that thing after going back to third on that restart.
“Man, I can’t say enough about these guys (his Stewart Haas team). We started the year off and it was a struggle, and we had to kind of dig deep with each other, really talk about how to get better and to see how much this group has grown through the year.
“I’ve been waiting to hear (congratulations from Xfinity Series director) Wayne (Auton) on the radio for a few times now, so I’m pumped.”
Allgaier spun underneath Nemechek on Lap 3 and worked his way back to the front from 38th in the running order, but Custer had the superior car on short runs and proved it after the final restart.
“I don’t know if I’ll get another shot at it again next year,” said the 37-year-old Allgaier. “We at least will have a shot at it, but I don’t know if we’ll make it. But so proud of the effort of this team and what we were able to accomplish. The restart was fantastic. I thought we did everything right.
“The 20 (Nemechek) kind of missed the bottom and drove all the way up, and honestly, I was afraid I was going to run into the back of him. When I tried to turn back down the hill, it just was enough to let the 00 (Custer) get back to my inside and ultimately getting down into Turn 3…
“I don’t know, I’m going to replay this one back in my head a couple times. I drove in there pretty deep and just kind of washed up. The 00 had the turning car all night, and we were just a little bit too free.”
Riley Herbst ran fourth on Saturday, followed by title contender Sam Mayer. Nemechek, a series-best seven-time winner this season, suffered a flat tire after the final restart, slammed the outside wall and finished 28th.
“Drove in, and it didn’t turn,” Nemechek said of Turn 1 after the final restart. “I don’t know if we had a right front (tire) start going down or what exactly it was, but just drove in and didn’t turn.
“Toyota GR Supra was really fast, but drive down, it doesn’t turn, it’s not a very good thing. Then once we got pinched in the fence there off of (Turn) 2, it kind of hurt the right sides even more. I think we had a right rear start going down, as well.
“It sucks to end up where we finished. Had a really strong effort all day. Proud of this whole 20 crew. Proud of this whole group. Just sucks to end our season this way, but overall, a really successful season for this 20 team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Was proud to be behind the wheel of this 20 car all year, and seven wins is a lot to be proud of.”
In a race that produced eight cautions for a total of 46 laps, Custer led 96 of 202 laps to 66 for Nemechek.
Josh Berry, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith, pole winner Sammy Smith and Kaz Grala completed the top 10.
— NASCAR Wire Service —
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