SPARTA - When the white flag waved to signal the final lap of the Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart, there were four cars battling side-by-side to get to the finish line first.
Cole Custer, who was sixth when the race restarted with two laps to go, outlasted the 40-car field to grab his inaugural NASCAR Cup Series victory on Sunday afternoon at Kentucky Speedway. Custer became the first Cup rookie to win since Chris Buescher did it back in 2016 at Pocono Raceway.
Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team came into Kentucky riding high after a fifth-place finish in last week's Brickyard 40, but they were riding even higher after Sunday's win. Despite the win, Custer believes he and his SHR team still have some work left to do to be running up front consistently.
"I think we still have a ways to go," began Custer. "We have things we can do a lot better for sure. I think we're to the point now where we can race with these guys. We can take advantage of it when we're near the front."
While there were no fans in attendance at the 1.5-mile track due to COVID-19, it was still an exciting weekend of racing in the Bluegrass State. With one lap to go, Custer found himself on the outside of Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., all of which were battling for the top spot.
Blaney and Harvick would make contact with one another about the same time Custer rocketed his No. 41 Ford Mustang around Truex Jr. to take the lead. The driver of the HaasTooling.com machine would wheel his way around the track to attain his first-ever Cup Series win on a day that he would also lead his first lap in the series.
Custer came out of nowhere to win the race, and that is exactly how Truex Jr. described the chaotic four-way battle for the lead with one lap to go. Harvick described the late-race encounter as wild.
"(Cole Custer) came with a big run, and I didn't see him coming," told Truex Jr.
"I got out of the gas, and that just brought everybody into the picture," Harvick explained. "Then we were four-wide on the front straightaway here and the 12 hit the drain and came up and hit the side of the car and then I couldn't see, so, yeah, it got wild."
Up until this Sunday's race, all nine of the previous Cup races at Kentucky had been won by a former Cup Series champion. Thanks to Custer's surprising victory over the weekend, that streak will come to an end.
Truex Jr., a two-time winner at Kentucky, came home in the runner-up position while Matt DiBenedetto finished in third. Harvick took home fourth, while 2019 Kentucky winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.
Aric Almirola ran away with the opening stage of the race, cruising to a stage one victory. Almirola, who led a race-high 128 laps, would finish the race in eighth.
Brad Keselowski would take the stage two victory for his fourth stage triumph of the year. Keselowski, who suffered some damage in late-race contact with Jimmie Johnson, would wind up coming home ninth overall.
With his big win on Sunday in the Bluegrass State, Custer automatically punched his tickets to the NASCAR Playoffs, which will begin in September. Custer also became the ninth different Cup driver to visit victory lane in 2020.
This year's edition of the Quaker State 400 featured eight cautions on the day for 42 laps. There were 13 lead changes between nine drivers in race 17 of 36 on the 2020 season.
Custer becomes the sixth different driver to be victorious in the ten Cup Series events at the Kentucky racetrack. Custer joins the likes of Keselowski, Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch.
The Cup Series will have a pair of races this week, beginning with Wednesday's NASCAR All-Star Open and All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. After the mid-week battle for a million dollars in Bristol, Tennessee, the series will head to Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Kentucky hosted five races in a four-day timeframe, beginning with back-to-back Xfinity Series wins from Austin Cindric. Ty Gibbs (ARCA) and Sheldon Creed (Truck Series) garnered wins on Saturday before Custer capped off the weekend with his first Cup win.