The Headline(s): A relatively tame race ended in a chaotic final two laps, a four-wide battle for the lead and a Cup Series triumph for rookie Cole Custer, as NASCAR concluded its four-race stretch (five, including the ARCA Menards Series) over four days in the Bluegrass State.
One of the wildest late-lap battles for the lead in recent memory! ?
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 12, 2020
The weekend of firsts kicked off with Austin Cindric winning back-to-back Xfinity Series races on Thursday and Friday. He scored his first wins on ovals and also became the first driver to win races on consecutive days in the same series since Richard Petty in 1971.
Sheldon Creed followed on Saturday with his first career win when he was out front when the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky was washed out by rain. Custer did the same on Sunday but the race ran the full distance, the rookie taking advantage of late-race chaos to make his way to the front and score his first Cup victory.
Jimmie Johnson made his return after contracting COVID-19, only missing last week’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two negative tests for the virus allowed Johnson to climb back in the No. 48 for Kentucky.
How it happened: The Quaker State 400 got underway on time and wasn’t impeded by the weather. Rain seems the norm so far in 2020, especially for the Cup Series, so Mother Nature mercifully gave all of us a break this weekend (and a start time just before 3 p.m. was a godsend, as well).
Kyle Busch started on the pole by virtue of random draw, but his day quickly turned sour as he lost the lead to Aric Almirola nine laps in and then suffered issues later on in the race. Almirola dominated the first stage and took the green-and-white checkered flag first, en route to leading 128 laps. Cautions in the middle of green-flag pit stops threw things off multiple times, but the class of the field mostly stayed near the front.
Ryan Blaney took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. late, but another restart saw Kevin Harvick take Blaney and Truex and three-wide and take the lead. Truex was reeling Harvick in and was in position to pass when another yellow flag flew, setting up the final restart of the day and Custer’s flight to the front.
Truex and Harvick restarted on the front row and battled throughout the second-to-last lap, the No. 19 nearly turning Harvick on the backstretch. Their fight allowed Blaney and Custer to close in, though, and their battle was sandwiched between the No. 12 and No. 41 as the white flag waved above them.
Blaney’s car bounced over a drain on the apron, kicking it out from under him. As he saved it, he made contact with Harvick, who made slight contact with Truex, all of which allowed Custer to clear himself on the outside. As Blaney and Harvick faded with damage, Custer led Truex across the start/finish line to secure his first career victory.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Obviously, Custer is the prime driver for this category. He had an all-around solid day and looked poised for a top 10 until the final restart. Truex and Harvick’s battle opened the door for Blaney and Custer to close in, the four-wide situation leading to Blaney hitting the drain and sliding up into Harvick. All that allowed Custer to scoot away for the win. Plus, he got two of the coolest trophies in NASCAR right now at the same track: Kentucky Speedway’s signature jukebox and the customized Louisville Slugger, as well.
Blaney, Harvick and Truex also had solid runs, finishing in the top five. All three had race-winning cars, but the aforementioned last-lap battle hurt their chances.
Almirola led 128 laps, the most of any driver, and won the opening stage. He didn’t continue his streak of top-five finishes, but still recorded five straight prior to Kentucky and showed speed once again.
Johnson, upon returning from illness, also had a stout car and was in the top three late in the race, however, his hopes of winning were dashed when he blocked Brad Keselowski late on a restart and was turned by the No. 2. Johnson still finished 18th, an impressive return regardless.
Other notables include Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick. DiBenedetto gave Custer the push of his life that propelled the No. 41 to the win and DiBenedetto himself came home with a top-five finish. Bell and Reddick, Custer’s main competition for Rookie of the Year honors, crossed the line seventh and 10th, respectively, a strong day for the first-year racers.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Kyle Busch started on the pole, led nine laps and we never saw the No. 18 again, except for when the 2019 champion had problems. He ended up 21st, on the lead lap, but failed to score any stage points and dropped like a rock once the first long run got underway. However, he did make one of the most spectacular saves of the season exiting turn 4.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 12, 2020
After winning Pocono two weeks back and leading late at Indianapolis before crashing, Denny Hamlin had an unusually quiet day, finishing 12th but never making any noise toward the front. He also failed to score any stage points.
Matt Kenseth spun twice in the latter half of the event, a demoralizing day on the heels of finishing second at Indianapolis. While Kenseth seems to still be settling into his role at Chip Ganassi Racing, last week seemed to be a turning point for the grizzled veteran. Kentucky, however, proved to be full of issues for the No. 42 team.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Coronavirus is still a huge threat to the 2020 season. Although Johnson was asymptomatic and we don’t know how long he’d had it prior to testing positive, severity varies among those who catch it.
However, this doesn’t mean anyone should take it less seriously. While Johnson had no real issues other than missing a race at Indy, any other driver could be impacted more severely. NASCAR doesn’t seem to be taking things any less seriously, which is certainly a positive, but it’s important that the sport continue to require masks, social distancing and all the other precautions during this pandemic.
Mother Nature gave us all a break this weekend. Race weekends without weather are a blessing at this point, and despite rain shortening the Truck race on Saturday, inclement weather stayed away for the other three races at Kentucky. Hopefully, that trend will continue, especially for the upcoming midweek All-Star Race at Bristol.
First-time winners rule in the Bluegrass State. To be fair, Cindric wasn’t a first-time winner in the normal sense, but he did score his first wins on oval-shaped tracks on Thursday and Friday. Creed had one of the best trucks on Saturday, winning stage two and the race thanks to rain. And of course, you had Custer scoring his first career Cup win as well. (Not to be outdone, Felix Rosenqvist also scored his first IndyCar series victory as well, albeit a bit north of Kentucky, on Road America’s twisting circuit).
Kentucky might want to look at the apron of the trioval. The finish was more than enough excitement for everyone watching, but the speedway might want to reevaluate its trioval. Blaney’s car appeared to catch some air as it hit a drain or something on the apron, which could’ve been disastrous. He was able to save his car when it hit Harvick’s No. 4, but if Blaney had completely lost control there would have been a massive pileup in the turn.
I mean COME ON. ??? pic.twitter.com/mjaqKaNBre
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 12, 2020
Tempers flared on Thursday and Friday in the Xfinity Series. The weekend races were pretty calm, but Brett Moffitt and Ross Chastain tangled on Thursday night in the first of three incidents over two nights in NASCAR’s secondary division.
Contact between the two sent Moffitt into the wall, and the full-time Truck Series driver showed his displeasure by driving back down into Chastain and shooting him his middle finger. Not 20 laps later, Anthony Alfredo and Colby Howard tangled in turn 1. Alfredo imitated Moffitt, presenting Howard with the one-finger salute out the window of his No. 21.
Friday brought even more contact than Thursday had, this time in the form of post-race fisticuffs. Noah Gragson dove into turn 3, his No. 9 sliding high and into Harrison Burton. Both cars got into the wall and suffered damage.
Burton approached Gragson after the race and the two exchanged words. Burton got in a couple of shoves before Gragson threw a punch, both drivers going to the ground before being pulled off one another as Timmy Hill drank some water in the background, unimpressed and unfazed.
"Boys, have at it." pic.twitter.com/4R8mqA3OD5
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) July 11, 2020
With the season impacted by the coronavirus and the races packed into a smaller schedule, it makes me wonder how much of this we’ll see as the season progresses. The wear and tear on the drivers is greater than in a normal season, of course, and that almost certainly extends to wearing on their nerves. This will definitely be something to keep an eye on as the 2020 regular season nears its conclusion.
Kentucky finishes deliver again. Last year’s Cup race ended in a spectacular battle between the Busch brothers, and this year’s final lap started with a four-wide battle for the lead. The race wasn’t awful Sunday but was generally mediocre and the finish made for a wildly entertaining ending.
We were all reminded of the dangers of racing this weekend. As a note outside of NASCAR’s major touring series, three separate incidents brought back the grim reality of racing.
A Saturday night modified race at Langley Speedway in Virginia – my home state – left 11-time track champion Shawn Balluzzo dead in a crash and the racing community mourning a legend.
As if that wasn’t enough, a heavy late model accident at Dominion Raceway – also in Virginia – knocked driver Tyler Hughes unconscious. Doug Barnes, also caught up in the incident, took issue with it, climbed on top of the wall and cannonballed onto Hughes’ car’s windshield.
Finally, Amber Balcaen suffered a midget crash at Valley Speedway in Missouri on Saturday, leaving her with a number of injuries that included a severe concussion and collapsed lung, among other things.
Update on last night crash: I’m still in the hospital after being admitted last night. I have a collapsed lung, severe concussion, very sore body with limited mobility, a few small burns but the CT scans came back all ok and I’m in the mend. Thanks everyone♥️
— Amber Balcaen (@amberbalcaen10) July 12, 2020
All three incidents are a reminder of just how dangerous this sport can be as if we weren’t reminded enough by Ryan Newman‘s horrific crash at Daytona in February.
On to lighter things, the award for best Cup Series paint scheme this weekend goes to Almirola.
Almirola drove a car stylized as a political paint scheme, promoting himself for the All-Star Race and for fans to vote him into the show. It was eye-catching, pretty funny and an original way to try and get some votes. Plus, that No. 10 was up front for a while, so it certainly got airtime.
Wow! @SmithfieldBrand has gone all in to try to secure a spot in the #AllStarRace. ?? Check out the No. 10 Vote For Bacon Mustang I’ll be racing at @KySpeedway on Sunday. Makes you wanna head to https://t.co/ZidrjUSllb now for your chance to win free bacon for a year. Right? ? pic.twitter.com/yfs5Tf84NV
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) July 6, 2020
Quick honorable mention goes to Blaney. I’ve kind of been in love with his Advance Auto Parts paint scheme ever since it was revealed, and it’s a fantastic, eye-catching car that also had plenty of time on TV. Any other week, it’d probably take the win here, but Almirola’s livery was a one-time thing and I’ve got to give it to that No. 10.
Where it Rated: As mentioned previously, the race was pretty uneventful until the waning laps, so it takes a hit for that. However, that fantastic finish definitely elevates things, so I’ll give the Quaker State 400 four creepy Colonel Sanders statues out of five. The speedway installed a life-size statue of the chicken mogul in the stands with no fans in attendance, resulting in a unique, if rather disturbing, visual during the race.
What’s the Point(s)? Custer leapfrogs his way into the playoffs, the ninth driver to lock himself in with a win. He joins Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick in the postseason, with fellow stablemates Almirola and Clint Bowyer in a good position to make the playoffs as well. Kyle Busch drops a couple of spots to 12th, while Austin Dillon completely falls out of the playoff picture and Reddick gets a bit closer to the bubble.
Up next: The Cup Series heads about five hours southeast to Bristol Motor Speedway for a Wednesday night full of action. NASCAR’s premier division will take to the half-mile-long Last Great Colosseum for an All-Star Race under (and above) the lights, with underglow lights set to be installed on all cars locked into the main event.
Toyotas will be running red underglows, while Ford will be blue and Chevrolet amber. It makes me hope, that if it’s done again in the future, that the lights will correspond to the sponsors – I’d love some green amongst the manufacturer colors. Just look at Kurt Busch’s Nashville burnout last year.
Regardless, the entire night will look like a race out of 2 Fast 2 Furious’ opening scene. The All-Star Open, which will determine the additional cars that race their way into the big race, is set for 7 p.m. ET, while the All-Star Race itself is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.
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