MADISON — Two trucks dominated the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Drivin’ For Linemen 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park Saturday, but neither won.
Instead, 17-year-old Cole Custer of Ladera Ranch, Cal., captured his first victory of the year in just his third start for JR Motorsports. But he certainly didn’t back into victory lane. Custer started second, drove a smart race and was in contention to win most of the evening. Custer passed race leader Tyler Reddick on the final restart of the 160-lap contest and wound up celebrating in victory lane with crew chief Joe Shear Jr. and his Haas Automation Chevrolet team.
“I got a pretty good jump and he (Reddick) just missed a shift there or something, so I was able to get the lead,” said Custer. “It kinda played into our hands. We had a shot to win all night. And I knew if things played out right we’d definitely have a shot to win.”
For Custer, it was his first victory of 2015 and his second in just 12 NASCAR Camping World Truck races.
Weather played a significant part in tonight’s race. Qualifying was rained out and the start of the race was delayed by one hour and 48 minutes.
“Weather was a challenge, but the fans were there to see a good show,” said Gateway Motorsports Park owner and CEO Curtis Francois. “It was certainly worth the wait. Families dominated the day and we hosted between 18,000 to 20,000 NASCAR fans.”
Custer had his own cheering section in the Gateway Motorsports Park grandstands after he visited the General Motors Wentzville Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Mo., on Thursday to sign autographs and distribute tickets to the employees.
With Drivin’ For Linemen 200 qualifying rained out, the trucks were lined up according to practice times. Erik Jones’ lap of 32.903 seconds (136.766 mph) during final practice placed him on the pole for Saturday's Drivin’ For Linemen 200. Cole Custer, last year’s polesitter, started second after producing a lap of 32.945 seconds (136.591 mph) around the 1.25-mile oval.
When honorary starter Nick Loren waved the opening green flag, Jones assumed the lead from the pole and pulled away as Custer and Matt Crafton battled for second place in the early laps.
The first 45 laps of the race belonged completely to Jones until Crafton began whittling away at his lead. By lap 50, Crafton’s Toyota was within striking distance.
The first caution flag flew on lap 54 for a crash involving Justin Boston and Mason Mingus. Race teams took advantage of the caution period to make pit stops. The race restarted on lap 62 with Crafton on the inside of the front row, flanked by Jones. Jones passed Crafton and resumed command of the Drivin’ For Linemen 200.
The second caution period occurred on lap 80 for debris on the track. Most of the frontrunners, including race leader Jones, pitted but Crafton’s team gambled and he remained on the track. The race restarted on lap 85 with Crafton in the lead. Jones was shortening the distance between his truck and Crafton’s when Matt Tifft crashed while running in 12th place. Crafton pitted during the caution period while Jones stayed on the track. Johnny Sauter was the leader when the race restarted, followed by Custer and Jones. Crafton occupied 13th place when the green flag flew and faced a long, hard fight back to the front.
Sauter’s truck appeared to be loose coming out of Turn 4 and Custer grabbed the lead. Crafton had his hands full with Spencer Gallagher for a few laps which allowed the frontrunners to pull away. On lap 104, Jones drove around the outside of Sauter to take second place. Jones took the highest groove on the track to get around Custer for the lead on lap 111. Meanwhile, Crafton took third place from Custer on lap 116.
On lap 118 the fourth caution period of the race was necessitated when Tommy Regan’s truck slowed to a stop on the track. Jones, Crafton and Sauter pitted for tires and fuel. Crafton emerged from pit road first. The race restarted with Crafton in the lead and Jones in third. On lap 128, Jones again found himself in a battle with Gallagher, this time for second place. Jones prevailed and set off in search of race leader Crafton.
With just 20 laps remaining Jones could read the lettering on Crafton’s tailgate as he reeled in the leader. But Jones’ valiant run to his first victory of 2015 came to an end on lap 143 when he raced to the inside of the lapped truck of Ryan Ellis and spun. Jones’ Toyota slid and the collateral damage from a flat left-rear tire took its toll on the battery. Jones, who led the most lap of the race (81) ended his night in 23rd place.
On the ensuing restart, Tyler Reddick drove past Crafton for the lead, then John Hunter Nemechek’s truck bobbled and hit Crafton’s. Crafton, the second of two dominant drivers of the Drivin’ For Linemen 200, pitted with right-front and right-rear damage after making contact with the wall. Crafton’s sure bid for victory was reduced to a 21st-place finish.
The final green flag was thrown on lap 156 with Reddick, Custer and Sauter comprising the top three. Reddick’s truck was slow on the restart. Custer seized the opportunity and raced past to take the lead. Custer took the checkered flag while Gallagher and Sauter battled for second place. Sauter crossed the finish line in third, followed by Nemechek and Cameron Haley.
Despite his misfortune, Crafton leaves Gateway Motorsports Park as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points leader, 12 ahead of Reddick.