Cole Custer benefited from the misfortunes of others in order to pull off an upset win in the American Ethanol Presents the Drivin' for Linemen 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois on Saturday night.
"We put everything together. We didn't have the best truck, but we ran a great race," said Custer after clinching the win. "I was just trying to tell myself 'no excuses.'"
It's the 17-year-old's second NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win in 12 starts and his first of 2015, and the second visit to victory lane for the JR Motorsports #00 after Kasey Kahne delivered the new team's maiden win last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
CLICK: Full race results from Gateway Motorsports Park.
Custer started the race on the front row, after a downpour just five minutes into qualifying had resulted in the session being abandoned. With the starting grid set according to the earlier practice session times, Kyle Busch Motorsports' Erik Jones had been handed pole position with reigning series champion Matt Crafton just behind in third place next to his ThorSport Racing team mate Johnny Sauter.
More ill-timed rain showers delayed the start of the 160-lap, 200-mile race by almost two hours, as NASCAR's state-of-the-art Air Titan track dryers were deployed at Michigan International Speedway in support of the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series events. By the time the race finally got underway it was past half nine at night, but the adrenalin meant that no one was caught napping when the green flag did finally come out - certainly not Jones, who quickly pulled out a lead that lasted for the first 55 laps.
A collision between KBM's Justin Boston and Billy Boat Motorsports Mason Mingus allowed Matt Crafton to beat Jones in the race off pit lane to lead for the first time, but Jones was quick to steal back the lead and hold it for another 20 laps through to the second caution of the night on lap 81 for debris in turn 1. While Jones pitted for four new tyres at the cost of track position, Crafton stayed out to lead at the restart until a new caution on lap 93 for Matt Tifft hitting the wall in turn 2 prompted him to finally come in and leave the lead to his team mate. However, Sauter then got checked up in turn 3 which allowed Custer to sail past and pick up the top spot.
Jones had just worked his way back to the front when Tommy Regan stalled in turn 4 to bring out the fourth caution of the night; this played nicely into Crafton's strategy and he cycled back to the front and went on to lead for the next 31 laps. With Jones settling into second place it looked like this was very much a two horse race, but that all changed on lap 142 when Jones spun while trying to pass the lapped truck of Ryan Ellis. A lap later and the #4 suddenly died with a terminal electrical issue, and Jones was done for the night - the latest in a worryingly long line of recent disappointments in which circumstances have snatched defeat from the jaws of what had looked like the imminent race victory, and the second week in a row that battery problems have cost him dear.
The way was clear for Crafton to go on and win the race - except that's not what happened. Tyler Reddick got the best restart and went into the lead leaving Crafton tussling over the shotgun spot with Custer and John Hunter Nemechek; two laps later and Nemechek's #8 got loose and made contact with Crafton, sending the #88 spinning into the wall in turn 3 and out of the race for his first DNF of the year.
That left Custer in control for the restart, and with five laps remaining he made no mistakes. He swiftly moved past a sputtering Reddick and then commanded the final minutes of the race as he cooly led Spencer Gallagher, Sauter, Nemecheck, Cameron Hayley and Timothy Peters to the finish line. Custer's margin over Gallagher was up to almost a full second by the time the chequered flag dropped.
"I got a pretty good jump," Custer said. "We were able to get the lead and finish out the race ... I always knew that we had trucks capable of winning," he added. "We just had to put everything together for a race."
“[We] didn't have the speed in our #23 Allegiant Travel Chevrolet that we wanted all day," noted Gallagher after picking up his second career top-five finish. "We started 14th, so pretty far back there and a track where track position is such a huge deal, that was kind of a cloud hanging over our head to begin with.
"My GMS Racing guys played the game right all night," Gallagher continued. "We were able to hold off Sauter at the end there. I told my crew chief, better be lucky than good sometimes, I'll take it!"
Reddick ended up dropping behind Red Horse Racing's Ben Kennedy for eighth place, with Daniel Hemric and Austin Theriault rounding out the top ten. John Wes Townley just missed out in 11th ahead of Gallagher's GMS Racing team mate Brandon Jones, who had skipped his high school graduation ceremony to race at Gateway and who was surprised to be handed his diploma during driver introductions after track officials had it flown in from his home town of Lake Norman, North Carolina.
Despite the premature end to his night, 21st place means that Matt Crafton remains top in the Camping World Truck Series championship standings although his margin over Tyler Reddick has been trimmed to 12 points with Johnny Sauter a further 18 points back ahead of Erik Jones, John Wes Townley and Cameron Hayley. In the owners standings, Crafton's #88 truck owned by Rhonda Thorson has the same margin in hand over the Brad Keselowski Racing #19 driven by Reddick.
The Truck series will be back in action again in just six days, reverting to the more familiar setting of Friday evening for the American Ethanol 200 at Iowa Speedway on June 19.
See full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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