By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
For 155 laps in Saturday’s Allied Steel Buildings 200 at Dover International Speedway, it was Cole Custer’s race to lose as he led the field wire-to-wire to that point.
Then a caution and a slower pit stop proved costly for the driver of the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang and ultimately settled for a respectable, but agonizing fourth-place finish.
After a poor finish due to a multi-car crash at Talladega last Saturday, Custer came into the “Monster Mile” with a lot to prove, sitting fourth in points and trailing points leader Tyler Reddick, who won that afternoon, by 75 points.
It appeared that it was going to be a runaway victory as the race was clean up to that point with only two cautions due to the end of stages, both won by Custer with ease. If nothing got in the way, Custer was perhaps on his way of becoming the first driver to lead wire-to-wire in the NASCAR Xfinity Series since Joey Logano at Bristol in April 2015.
That all changed when spin by Kaz Grala caused by contact with John Hunter Nemechek on the backstretch brought out the first caution caused by on-track activity, changing the dynamics of the 200-mile race.
This meant their last pit stops would take place under the caution period, and his kryptonite throughout the afternoon was Christopher Bell, who was not far from catching Custer before Grala’s spin. It boiled down to who can get their driver out of pit road the quickest, and the winner in that exchange was Bell’s No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra, who beat Custer off pit road, resulting in the only lead change of the afternoon.
The pole sitter struggled getting by Bell, never being able to catch him after the restart and lost second to Justin Allgaier, who also was looking to bounce back from a bad Talladega result.
“The problem was the No. 7 (Allgaier) was behind him and he pushed him so hard past me,” Custer on the restart after losing the race lead. “By the time we got into Turn 1, he was already cleared me. There wasn’t much I can do from that point. Maybe I could’ve gotten a little bit of a better jump, but I’m just frustrated.”
Despite having an additional two cautions, both from incidents involving Riley Herbst spinning in Turn 4 and a two-car crash collecting Vinnie Miller and Gray Gaulding in Turn 1, Custer struggled in dirty air. The once dominant leader never regained second spot, and at one point, appeared he wasn’t going to even finish in the top-five as he was down in sixth in the closing laps.
Custer would recover nicely and get by fellow Mustang drivers Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe, moving him back to fourth. Bell had already pulled away in clean air as Custer was hoping to get by points leader Reddick for third, running both lanes but wasn’t able to accomplish that feat.
While he gained four points on Reddick, he was frustrated with his sixth top-five finish of the season not resulting in a win after having his strongest car to date.
“It’s really frustrating when you lead that many laps. You just can’t give up track position here. Everybody wants to win at Dover and that’s why it’s so frustrating,” said Custer. “We had a really great Haas Automation Mustang, but it’s about the hardest track to pass at that we go to. We just couldn’t get it all back, and it’s just frustrating because we were so good.
“It feels like that we didn’t take advantage of a great car today. It’s good that we have so much speed and compete with those guys, but we need to figure out a way to beat them every weekend.”
The Xfinity Series will have a two-week break before the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway commences May 25, with Custer going into the race third in points and trailing Reddick by 71 markers.