AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Cole Custer lost his Cup Series ride after last season, a humbling demotion after three years at the sport's top level.
But the 25-year-old appears firmly on the comeback trail after holding off Justin Allgaier during a two-lap overtime shootout to win his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship Saturday night at Phoenix Raceway.
It was an exhilarating finish, with Custer, Allgaier and John Hunter Nemechek three-wide on the next-to-last lap, with Allgaier's JR Motorsports Chevrolet finding some room in-between the other two cars. But Custer -- who dove to the inside on the dogleg oval mile after starting on the outside during the restart -- pulled away while Allgaier and Nemechek banged doors on the outside.
"I can't believe we won that thing," Custer said.
One night after an ugly, crash-filled Truck Series finale, the Xfinity finale was notable for its clean, hard racing.
It was a sweet moment for Custer, who had a Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing the past three seasons before being demoted this year to the Xfinity Series. It's also a bright spot in a tough season for Stewart-Haas, which hasn't won a race in the Cup Series this season.
"Being a part of a new group, building it through the year, it's one of the most proud things I've been a part of," Custer said. "I feel like they leaned on me to be a leader. It's a very proud moment."
The four championship drivers were in the top four spots for the final restart, which was brought on after Anthony Alfredo spun out with five laps remaining.
Custer, the Xfinity Series runner-up in both 2018 and 2019, went low as Nemechek stayed high, with Allgaier making a brief run up the middle that brought the crowd to its feet.
Allgaier finished third, Sam Mayer ended up fifth, and Nemechek fell to 28th after hitting the wall on the final lap. It was the sixth time Allgaier has made the championship round, but he still hasn't won.
"The restart was fantastic. We did everything right," Allgaier said. "I'm going to replay this one in my head a couple times."
Allgaier put himself in a tough situation on Saturday's second lap when he tried to go low on the apron, bumping against Nemechek before spinning out and falling back to 36th. But the 37-year-old made up ground in a hurry, moving all the way up to third after his pit stop following the first stage.
"I gave 100%," Allgaier said. "It just didn't work out for us."
Allgaier won four times this season, earning a spot in the championship round by beating Sheldon Creed in a door-to-door finish to win at Martinsville last week.
Nemechek, the son of former Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek, had an ill-fated Cup Series debut for Front Row Motorsports in 2020. He was in a tough situation during NASCAR's COVID-19 "bubble" season, his only seat time coming during races because there was no practice or qualifying.
He will be back in the Cup Series next year with Legacy Motor Club, which is owned by Jimmie Johnson.
"We didn't go down without a fight, that's for sure," Nemechek said.
The 20-year-old Mayer has had a quick rise in NASCAR, starting with the Trucks Series in 2019. He won in Charlotte and Homestead to make the playoffs for the second straight year. Even after falling short of a championship, he was pleased with the team's effort.
Mayer's fifth-place finish was his best in Phoenix.
"That's probably the most fun I've had in a race car in a long time," Mayer said.