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Rookie Custer wins at Sparta

AP photo Cole Custer, right, celebrates with his crew after winning a NASCAR race Sunday in Sparta, Ky.

SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — Cole Custer saw an opening and, with help from a friend, squeezed through for the most fulfilling moment of his young racing career.

Custer became the first rookie regular to win in the NASCAR Cup Series in nearly four years, surging to the lead in a four-wide, final-lap scramble Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. were dueling side by side for the lead on the Lap 266 final restart when Custer — with a push from Matt DiBenedetto on the outside — made his move from sixth in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. As the leaders bunched in Turn 1, Custer slid ahead and outlasted Truex’s Toyota.

“I knew I just had to get to the top,” said Custer, who led twice for five laps — the first of his young career. “The top rolled pretty good and once I got past and I was like in third I was like, ëI’ve just got to take a shot and do whatever I can here.’

“And it ended up the 4 (Harvick) and the 19 (Truex) got together a little bit and I was able to take advantage of it.”

Making his 20th series start, the 22-year-old Custer celebrated with a frontstretch burnout as his crew happily ran to greet him.

He’s the first rookie to win a non-rain-shortened race since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007. Brad Keselowski won a race in 2009, Trevor Bayne in 2011 and Justin Haley in 2019 while not racing full seasons. All three would have been classified as rookies had they been competing a full year. Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened race in August 2016 while competing for rookie of the year.

Custer also won at Kentucky last July in the Xfinity Series.

Matt Kenseth’s Turn 4 spin forced the final caution and created the opportunity for Custer’s victory.

DiBenedetto was third, and Harvick fourth — both in Fords. Kurt Busch, the winner last year, was fifth.

“I got a good restart and was curious what he was going to do,” DiBenedetto said about helping Custer. “When he pulled to the top, I was like, ëYeah, that was a good move right there.’ And I just decided to shove him since I couldn’t go around to the outside.

“It helped him to get to the win and I joked with him that he owes me $100. But he did a great job.”

The final hundred laps created plenty of lead changes but nothing like the final 20 where Harvick, Truex, Blaney all had their shots.

Even seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — back behind the wheel after missing last week’s race in Indianapolis following a positive coronavirus test — was running in the top three late with a chance to win. A spin into the front stretch grass on a lap 255 restart ended his quest and left his No. 48 Chevy 18th in his final Kentucky start.

Johnson’s day wasn’t a complete bust. The track named one of its entrances Jimmie Johnson Boulevard, and a banner over the infield tunnel entrance read, “Thank You, 48.”

“Now that it’s real, we’ll find out exactly where everybody is,” Trotz said. “The team that can really get their team structure-wise and attitude and execution and out that in place as quick as possible, you have a chance to win. The discipline and structure are paramount to having success.”

Some of that discipline is players and their loved ones staying home as much as possible before teams fly to the quarantined “hub cities” of Toronto and Edmonton.

Carolina forward Justin Williams said his teammates have been told to tighten up the circles of people they’re around for the next couple of weeks to keep the Hurricanes from having an outbreak.

Players and staff will be tested every other day during camp, similar to Major League Baseball’s policy that has come under fire for delays on results. Testing will be daily once games start.

The injury question could linger. The NHL is prohibiting teams from revealing injury or illness information as a way to project player privacy with the novel coronavirus. The league reported 35 players testing positive since June 8.

“It was a high priority for guys, no question,” NHLPA special assistant to the executive director Mathieu Schneider said. “Early on, guys were very sensitive to it. Obviously, they’re contacting everyone that they know that they’ve been in touch with and the ID tracing. But (privacy) was very important to the players.”

Already, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos won’t be 100% for the start of camp because of a new lower-body injury, and Minnesota defenseman Greg Pateryn is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. It’ll be a mystery from this point forward if a player is injured, ill or otherwise.

But players are ready for a brave new world of summer camp.

“It’s a little bizarre,” Copp said. “Even when you are at the rink, the protocols definitely make it a different feel. … But I think everyone is just kind of amped and ready to go.”

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