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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Xfinity Breakdown: Cole Custer Makes His Case for Championship Favorite at Chicagoland

Before the Camping World 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, Tyler Reddick was the topic du jour. Due in part to his championship-winning run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Reddick was though to be the best at running the high line, a necessity for getting around Chicagoland as fast as possible. The subtext was that if the defending Xfinity Series champion flexed his muscles on Saturday afternoon, it would serve notice that he’d be in prime shape to defend his title this fall.

A funny thing happened on the way to proving that theory: Cole Custer stole all of Reddick’s thunder.

He and his No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing team did it in dominant fashion too. Custer started on the front row right next to Joey Logano, but was on the point early and often, leading 151 of 200 laps. Except for a thrilling exchange during the first stage that saw him exchange the lead twice with Logano in short order — one so exciting that it made Dale Earnhardt Jr. do the time warp and refer to Logano as the “Winston Cup Series champion” — Custer simply outclassed the field for most of the day, acing restarts when he was up front and surging past cars during the few times he wasn’t.

The Cup Series champ couldn’t help but be impressed.

“It’s funny when you come to this next level down and you kind of see the up and coming talent,” Logano said after his runner-up finish. “He’s ready for it, I can tell you that much.”

That sentiment is growing among fans and observers as well. Custer had just two career Xfinity Series wins entering the 2019 season, but he’s now won four times in 15 starts this year. That ties him with Christopher Bell and puts him one ahead of Reddick for the time being.

It’s also very much worth noting how good Custer has been at Homestead, where he picked up his first Xfinity Series victory in 2017 and looked like he had the fastest car last year until late pit strategy put him in a hole too deep to climb out of. With his history at the track that decides the champion and an impressive showing at a similar circuit, it’s fair to wonder if he should be considered the title favorite — at least until one of the other Big 3 members does something to dispel that notion.

The Good

Do you like cars sliding around and being able to pass both high and low? You really should, and so does Matt DiBenedetto:

He’s got a point, because even though Chicagoland had an amazing ending to its Cup Series race in 2018, the racing on Saturday was superb almost the whole way, a prime example of how there can be excitement even when the lead isn’t changing hands too often. It wasn’t uncommon to see cars go three-wide right after restarts, both the high and low grooves were viable options for many drivers, and it was possible to make passes in either lane.

On top of that, pit strategy came into play as well. JR Motorsports teammates Michael Annett and Noah Gragson both stayed out as long as possible during the final stage, with Annett leading laps in the hope that a caution would fall at just the right time. They got their wish courtesy of a yellow with less than 30 laps to go, bringing all of the cars who would have cycled to the lead back down pit road with them.

Neither driver ended up with a legitimate shot to win — no shame given the show that Custer was putting on — but it worked out just fine nonetheless, with Annett coming home fourth and Gragson seventh. As the great (albeit fictional) American philosopher John “Hannibal” Smith often said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

The Bad

While Ryan Sieg started the 2019 season on fire, the flames on his No. 39 RSS Racing have officially been extinguished for now. Chicagoland was a tough day for the king of this season’s Xfinity underdogs, with two spins for his Chevy Camaro.

Sieg never came home worse than 16th in his first 11 starts this year, racking up six top 10s along the way. But over the past three races prior to Chicagoland, he finished 26th at Pocono and 17th at Michigan before bottoming out with a season-worst 30th at Iowa. It’s a testament to the 39 bunch that they still rallied for a 13th-place result on Saturday, which isn’t too shabby, but they’re clearly not in possession of the same mojo they had even a month ago.

The Ugly

If NASCAR fans are waiting for Kyle Larson to throw off the albatross in the Cup Series, his counterpart in misery in the Xfinity Series has definitely been Justin Allgaier. A five-time winner in 2018, Allgaier has gone winless through half the 2019 campaign while being buffeted by a seemingly nonstop combo of misfortune and self-inflicted errors. Surely, Chicagoland, a track he calls home and where he’s won in the past, would prove a possible turnaround point.

Not so much, as it turned out.

Allgaier was only having a so-so afternoon when disaster struck early in the final stage. Jeffrey Earnhardt got loose and slid up the track in front of Allgaier, who couldn’t react quickly enough to keep his No. 7 Chevrolet off the outside wall. It wasn’t the hardest of impacts, but the damage to his right-front wheel proved too severe to continue.

“I thought there would be just enough of a hole to his outside that we could sneak by, but once I got in his dirty air, there was just nowhere to go and I hit the fence,” Allgaier said after retiring from the race.

It’s not like we haven’t seen the No. 7 team have some bad finishes before, because Allgaier’s third 30th or worse result on Saturday was actually less than he had at the same point in 2018. The enormous difference is that he had two wins in the bank by the end of June in 2018, whereas he doesn’t look like a true contender most weeks this season. He’ll have to hope the rest of the summer is a different story.

Underdog Performance of the Race

This is a tricky call this week. If Kaulig Racing is considered an underdog, which a lot of people do not at this point since Justin Haley has been running well all season, then Haley and Ross Chastain get the nods for finishing eighth and ninth, respectively. It’s hard to say it was Sieg since he spun twice and has done better than 13th numerous times this season.

So by default, that might hand the honor over to Jeremy Clements, who ended up on the lead lap in 14th. After a rough four-race patch that ended in Talladega, his self-owned team has righted the ship with six straight finishes of 18th or better. That’s extremely impressive for an underfunded organization.

Double Duty Interlopers

When there’s only one Cup Series driver in an Xfinity Series field, you can’t expect him to bring home the checkered flag every time (with the exception of Kyle Busch, of course). Logano certainly didn’t embarrass himself or anything, but he was definitely a little frustrated with his second-place finish since his Team Penske Ford clearly was not as fast as Custer’s race car.

“At Chicagoland,” Logano said while laughing after the race when asking where Custer’s bunch had him beaten. “Everywhere around here.”

No argument there.

Quotable

“I think we’re going to hit it hard through this summer.” – Cole Custer

“I survived 200 [laps] on the top, so that was a big thing, just building confidence up there, running up there without hitting the wall.” – Christopher Bell

Final Word

In what has been one of the more intriguing Xfinity Series seasons in recent memory, it’s hard to say who has the upper hand from week to week. None of the Big Three of Custer, Bell and Reddick has been able to claim more than momentary bragging rights, and that could easily still be the case by the end of the regular season.

However, there has to be the slightest bit of doubt creeping into the minds of Bell and Reddick because of what Custer showed at Chicagoland. The championship battle is almost certainly going to involve beating the No. 00 at its own game, and that’s not going to be an easy task.

Up Next

Warm up that #NoDaysOff hashtag, because the next Xfinity Series off-week isn’t until October. The next stop in this busy stretch is Daytona, a place that should surely give everyone outside the Big Three some hope of stealing a win and locking themselves into the playoffs.

Cup Series drivers have routinely won the summer Daytona stop during this decade, but with less of them entering this year, that very well could change. What everyone has to be hoping is that the race is better than the 300-miler in February, which was arguably the dullest superspeedway race of the modern era. Annett managed to win that one after no one dared pull out to challenge him for the lead for most of the day for fear of losing multiple spots.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed for the Circle K Firecracker 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, which will air at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 5, on NBCSN.

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One comment

  1. Avatar

    If a team had to choose between Cole and Tyler which would it be?