Saturday's motors: Custer takes checkered at Dover for 7th Xfinity win of year

Associated Press
Driver Cole Custer car (00) celebrates on top of his car in the winners circle during the  NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race Saturday in Dover, Del.

Dover, Del. — Cole Custer raced to his seventh Xfinity Series victory of the season Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

The 21-year-old Custer, who made his 100th start, proved as a top contender for the title as NASCAR’s second-tier series gets set to move into the next round of the playoffs. Custer started from the pole in the No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing and led 31 laps to win for the time since August.

“I wanted to win here so bad for so long,” Custer said.

Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick have combined to win 19 of the 29 Xfinity Series races. Bell and Reddick are each making the move to the Cup Series next year, while Custer’s future is uncertain.

“It is what it is,” Custer said.

Dover also marked the first cutoff race in the Xfinity Series and John Hunter Nemechek, Brandon Jones, Ryan Sieg and Justin Haley were knocked out from championship contention.

“We just haven’t been able to close this year,” Nemechek said. “I feel like that’s been one of our struggles.”

Jones had his bid to race his way into the second round spoiled on an accident in the opening lap.

“I always try to find the positives with this kind of stuff,” Jones said. “None today.”

Custer, Bell and Reddick are joined in the next round by Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, and Chase Briscoe.

Allgaier won the first two stages and finished second at Dover, followed by Cindric, Haley and Briscoe.

“That is two weeks in a row I feel like we had the best race car and didn’t get the win,” said Briscoe, who led 71 laps. “There are so many circumstances that go into winning these races and one little thing that you don’t catch at the right time just kills you.”

The next round starts in two weeks at Kansas Speedway.

“Going into Kansas and Texas, we just know that we’re going to fire on all cylinders and we can go in there and win,” Custer said.

Hamlin wins pole

Denny Hamlin is 0-for-Dover in a stellar career for Joe Gibbs Racing that includes two Daytona 500 victories.

He’s also missing a Cup championship, conspicuous by its absence on a resume that boasts 35 wins over 499 career starts. Hamlin took a nice first step toward erasing his winless drought at Dover International Speedway when he turned a lap of 166.984 mph to start the second round of the playoffs on the pole. That championship that sits just seven races away, well, Hamlin believes it’s his for the taking.

“Even though I’ve had past stumbles here, and it hasn’t technically been my best race track, we know we are fully capable of winning at any race track,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t matter what the past history is.”

Hamlin has never won on the mile concrete track in 27 races dating to 2006. He has only four top-five finishes, did not finish four times and his average finish is just 17.5. He finished 21st in the No. 11 Toyota in the May race at Dover.

But to win a championship, a driver must often excel in crunch time on a track that gives him fits. With four wins this season, Hamlin is enjoying a renaissance with new crew chief Chris Gabehart. Hamlin said the chemistry gives him confidence to remain in championship contention.

“I think a lot of it comes from the crew chief,” Hamlin said. “I think that he’s done a phenomenal job when you go back to races for the second time, adjusting based off the information that I gave him. I think that’s been our strong suit.”

Hamlin will lead the field to green in his 500th career NASCAR Cup Series start. Richard Petty at Trenton in 1970 and Matt Kenseth at New Hampshire in 2013 are the only drivers to win their 500th start.

JGR has 15 wins this season and needs three more in seven races to match Hendrick Motorsports’ record total of 18 in 2007.

Playoff drivers took up most of the top 10: Kyle Larson joins Hamlin on the front row, Martin Truex Jr. starts third, Kevin Harvick fourth, Chase Elliott fifth and William Byron sixth. Ryan Blaney starts 10th. Reigning series champion Joey Logano qualified 14th, Rochester Hills' Brad Keselowski 16th and Clint Bowyer 17th.

“I told Denny a few days ago that I was going to get the pole. So, having him be just a little bit quicker than me is frustrating,” Larson said.

Kyle Busch was the worst qualifier among the 12 playoff drivers and starts 18th.

Four more drivers will be eliminated at the end of the round, which also includes Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway.