(Courtesy: Kentucky Speedway) SPARTA, Ky. – Mike Shiplett knew the characteristics of Kentucky Speedway’s racing surface were going to change Friday as the sun set, the lights came on and the laps added up in the Alsco 300.
The transition factored into his strategy for Cole Custer and the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team.
"The biggest thing we talk about, and we talk about a lot of stuff before the race, but we explain to him that the car is going to do something different than it had done in practice for the first 45 laps. Then the next 40 laps will be totally different from that. Then the last 110 laps the car is going to be where we need it," Shiplett said. "Just getting through the first part of the race is the key. That is where Cole has really accelerated his understanding of what he needs to do to get to the end of the race. It is really nice to win every stage and win the race but the ultimate goal is to win the race."
Custer and Christopher Bell entered the race deadlocked for the most NASCAR Xfinity Series victories this season.
Bell dominated the first two stages Friday, but Custer dominated the most important one.
The 21-year-old withstood a challenge from Bell with 46 laps remaining but kept his distance the rest of the way to earn his first victory at Kentucky Speedway and fifth in the series this season.
"The track was a lot different this year, so I kind of almost had to re-learn it a little bit. I think I got better and better as the race went on, got more comfortable with it," said Custer, who started fifth and now has seven victories in 88 career Xfinity Series races. "I think the track changed a lot also and I think Mike did a good job keeping up with that and knowing what was going to happen."
Bell, the defending race winner, won the first two stages and led 72 laps overall but twice lost the lead on pit road.
Fifth at the outset of the final stage, he got as close as Custer's back bumper after Custer's final green-flag pit stop only to lose grip and fall farther back. Unable to mount a serious challenge the rest of the way, he finished 1.651 seconds behind Custer.
Bell felt the transition from daytime to nighttime affected his car.
"It seemed to," he said. "We were really good early and my car felt really good late. We just got beat. Probably just got a little too comfortable there, a little bit too tight. We've just got to work on a couple more things and we'll be good."
The third place car driven by Tyler Reddick finished 12.808 seconds behind the winner.
The race was slowed by five cautions but went caution-free in the final stage. The extended period of green-flag racing left just five cars on the lead lap at the end. That's the fewest number of lead lap cars at the finish of an Xfinity Series race at Kentucky Speedway in the 25 times the series has visited the track.
"I think I was a little too conservative on my green flag pit stop," said Custer, who led the last 46 laps and 88 overall. "It worked out good. He got a little close and I was definitely sweating a little bit. He was definitely our competition there at the end but we had the better car."
Bell swept the first two stages and lead 70 of the first 90 laps. He passed pole winner Austin Cindric on the opening lap of the race and led every lap of the first stage.
After winning the first stage, he lost six spots on pit road. He lost four on pit road after winning the second stage. Bell recaptured the lead by passing Noah Gragson on Lap 67 and cruised to his 10th stage win.
Cindric earned the pole earlier in the day with a lap of 180.030 mph, and did so without his regular crew chief. Brian Wilson was suspended for the race after NASCAR discovered illegal body modifications to the No. 22 Team Penske Ford upon initial inspection Thursday. The team also was docked 10 owner points and Cindric lost 10 driver points.
Cindric added to the team's eventful visit to Kentucky Speedway on Lap 55. Racing side-by-side with Justin Haley, Cindric lost the handle on his car, bumped into Haley and spun up the track and damaged the right rear quarter panel when he hit the wall.
Cindric fell a lap down but had made it back to the lead lap for the start of the final stage and finished 14th.
Kentucky Speedway’s tripleheader race weekend continues Saturday with the ninth running of the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart. The race is set for 7:30 p.m.