Cole Custer falls just short of playoff advancement in Phoenix

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Cole Custer did all he could to try to race his way into the NASCAR XFINITY Series Championship 4 in Saturday’s Round of 8 finale at Phoenix Raceway.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

“I think we made the best of our day with what we had, but, overall, we’re still not in the Championship 4,” Custer said. “But for a first-year team we came a long ways.  From the first race here at Phoenix we were 10 times better, so next year we’ll go and get ‘em and I think we’ll be in it next year for sure.”

Custer entered the Ticket Galaxy 200 sixth in the championship standings, and in need of some help if he was to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway on points.

Luckily for the Stewart-Haas Racing rookie, help arrived. Fourth-place Brennan Poole crashed out early after contact with Caesar Bacarella. Fifth-place Matt Tifft started out strong only to struggle throughout the afternoon.

With those ahead of him struggling, Custer surged. But there was an issue – Daniel Hemric ran even better.

Custer entered the afternoon with a five-point edge on Hemric in the standings, but the Richard Childress Racing rookie made the gap up with strong runs in the race’s two stages. Going into the final stage Hemric held a two-point advantage on Custer, meaning the 19-year-old would need a buffer between the two drivers to secure a tie and best Hemric on a tiebreaker.

Hemric led Custer for much of the final stage, but a two-tire call after a late caution backfired for Hemric on the race’s final run, allowing Custer to pass the former late model ace with the laps winding down.

But while he managed the pass, Custer couldn’t pull away from Hemric. Instead he watched in his rear-view mirror as the tires began to stabilize and Hemric began to close back to his rear bumper.

The two closed up in the race’s final laps, with Christopher Bell just behind them. Custer tried to fend Hemric off, but in doing so allowed Bell to slip by both of them and remove his necessary buffer position. Hemric finally got the better of the battle on the white flag lap, finishing fifth with Custer following in seventh.

The two competitors shared a moment of respect after the race.

But despite the sign of respect, and his best efforts, Custer had fallen just short of earning a championship spot.

“I knew we needed to beat him, but I guess we needed a buffer in between us to beat him,” Custer said of his battle with Hemric. “We were all right all day.  We just needed that much more really to compete with the top three guys.

“It sucks.  The short tracks weren’t our strong suit all year, but the mile and a halves were really good for our Haas Automation Mustang team.  We just had a lot of bad luck this round with the first two races.  I know Daniel had some bad luck too, but if we didn’t have those two flats I think we would have transferred in there, so it sucks.”

His championship chase over, Custer’s lone remaining goal for the year is a victory in the season finale at Homestead.

“We had a really good test down there,” he said of the 1.5-mile Florida oval. “So we’ll have a shot at winning that.”

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