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Friday 5: After 30 years of trying, Bobby Dotter made it to NASCAR Victory Lane

Cole Custer nabbed his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win since 2019, edging the field by .565 seconds on the third overtime attempt to capture the 2022 Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Until last Saturday, SS Green Light Racing owner Bobby Dotter had won only once in NASCAR’s national series. Even then, he didn’t get to enjoy the spoils of Victory Lane.

It was 1992. Dotter drove in what was then the Busch Series. He led 58 of 200 laps at what is now Motor Mile Speedway in Dublin, Virginia, before Jeff Burton passed him with seven laps to go and took the checkered flag.

Burton’s car failed inspection after the race and was disqualified. That gave the win to Dotter, who crossed the finish line second, ahead of such drivers as Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton.

Dotter was gone when Burton’s car was disqualified. His crew chief called him at home, awakening Dotter, to tell him he had won.

Dotter didn’t believe him.

“Am I dreaming?” Dotter said he thought at the time. “This has got to be a dream. This just doesn’t happen to me.”

It would be his only victory as a driver in 209 NASCAR Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck series races spanning 1988-2004.

Dotter went on to become a team owner, competing in the Truck Series before moving to the Xfinity Series. His team was winless in 305 Truck starts and in 320 Xfinity starts until last weekend when Cole Custer won at Auto Club Speedway.

It would have been easy for anyone to give up, even the son of a racer, but Dotter persisted through those lean times.

“Through the years, it’s just the small victories,” he told NBC Sports of what kept him going. “There’s only one winner, but for us for so many years, a top 10 was a win or a top 15.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance 300

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26: Cole Custer, driver of the #07 Production Alliance Group Ford, drives during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance 300 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

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Dotter finally got to experience a victory as a team owner — and a trip to Victory Lane — after Custer led the final 21 laps last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, holding off the field on the final four restarts.

Even after arriving in Victory Lane, Dotter kept his cool.

“A lot of people said to me that I didn’t seem as overjoyed as a lot of the other people,” he said. “It was just that I was taking it in. I was enjoying it.”

That’s OK, many others were overjoyed for Dotter, including Gray Gaulding, who has known Dotter since he was 7 years old and raced for Dotter in 2019 and in select races in 2020.

Gaulding, watching from home, couldn’t contain his excitement. He stood and raised his arms at the end of the race.

Dotter was the first person in NASCAR that Gaulding and his father got to know when Gaulding looked to pursue racing. Gaulding took his first laps in a bandolero car in the parking lot at Dotter’s race shop. Gaulding and Dotter often said they would race together at some point.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300 - Qualifying

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 19: Gray Gaulding, driver of the #47 Safehedge Chevrolet, smiles on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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“We didn’t want to do anything together unless we knew that we had a realistic chance and all the finances were right,” Gaulding told NBC Sports. “We weren’t going to go out of business because I don’t want to see my friend Bobby lose his business over promises that can’t be met.”

Gaulding finished second at Talladega for Dotter and missed making the playoffs by one position in 2019 despite the team’s limited budget. Gaulding often called local businesses shortly before the Xfinity race in that area to try to secure additional funding.

He said that the team had four employees that season. Gaulding admits it would be difficult to run well three years later with the same type of resources.

Dotter’s SS Green Light Racing team is helped by its alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing. Dotter’s team bought seven cars from Stewart-Haas Racing and receives technical support from SHR and Ford. The team uses Roush Yates Engines. Dotter now has 15 employees for his two-team operation.

The relationship with SHR started about five years ago when the Cup team had a few spots open on its chartered flights and invited SS Green Light Racing to travel with them. That led to closer ties and an alliance this season.

As part of the arrangement, Custer will drive at least four races for the team this season, and Chase Briscoe will drive at least one race as a teammate to Joe Graf Jr.

Dotter said he hopes the upgrades to the organization will help Graf, who is in his third season with the team, achieve success. Graf is among several drivers who have competed for Dotter. The list includes Ross Chastain, who was among the first to congratulate Dotter in Victory Lane last week, Spencer Boyd, Ray Black Jr., and Garrett Smithley.

“NASCAR is a tough sport,” Gaulding said. “It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog type of sport. … Bobby Dotter has never lied to me or said anything that I couldn’t take to the bank to this day. … He’s an owner that every driver dreams to drive for.

“Yes, he doesn’t have the big name. He’s obviously not Rick Hendrick yet, hopefully he will be, or a Stewart-Haas, but the way that man carries himself as a businessman and an individual and really just being a good human being, that’s the reason I’m happy. I’m proud to know him, and I’m really, really proud of him and his race team.

“I tell Bobby this all the time, even though I might not be driving for him anymore … I’m always rooting for him whether it’s from the couch, in the same race or pit box, I’m always keeping up and rooting for him.”

2. RCR rebound

Car owner Richard Childress doesn’t hold back when asked if his Cup operation is close to winning this season.

“I know we can win,” he said. “We are going to win.”

The start of the season has brought much excitement to Richard Childress Racing.

Austin Hill won the Xfinity season opener at Daytona in his first start for the RCR.

In Cup, Tyler Reddick has been fast. He led 51 laps at the Clash in the Coliseum before mechanical issues ended his race. Only Kyle Busch led more laps that day (64).

Last weekend, Reddick won both stages and led a race-high 90 laps at Auto Club Speedway before a cut tire slowed him and he was hit by Willam Byron.

Reddick’s teammate, Austin Dillon, finished second at Auto Club. That followed his third-place result at the Clash.

“I think the new car has brought everybody to a more equal level,” Childress said. “Our guys have worked really, really hard all winter over this project. (General Motors) has really been working with all the key partners to make sure we all are working close together. I think all that has helped.”

The 90 laps Reddick led at Auto Club were more than he had led in his first 74 career Cup starts combined.

NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 06: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, and Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 Guaranteed Rate Chevrolet, pace the field prior to the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on February 06, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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While Reddick doesn’t yet have the finishes, the performance is not a surprise to some. Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson forecasted big things for Reddick last month at Daytona.

“I feel when I watch him, I am watching myself,” Larson said, “just because we are both really aggressive, and he seems to be even a little more aggressive and kind of (able to) keep things in control better than I could back when I was running really hard in Ganassi equipment, trying to run up front.

“He’s the guy that … I feel like is going to have the breakout season and win a lot of races.”

Dillon’s runner-up finish at Auto Club marked the first time he had finished in the top five at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since placing fourth at Richmond in the 2020 playoffs.

Dillon credits the early work the team did in developing the Next Gen car with the performance gains.

“We definitely tried to be the guys to embrace this new car the earliest in the process,” Dillon said. “I think some of the teams probably didn’t embrace it as much as we did. We saw it coming and tried to put a lot of effort into it from the beginning.”

3. Bumpy road

There were several issues that led to cars spinning and crashing last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, ranging from drivers trying to get familiar with the new car, limited track time and even the track’s bumps.

NASCAR has sought to help drivers get more track time this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Instead of the Cup field being divided into two groups and each group having 15 minutes of practice, NASCAR will have one 35-minute session the field before qualifying Saturday.

Series officials have not announced if it will change the practice schedule for any other upcoming events.

While the Las Vegas track is not as bumpy as Auto Club, those undulations might present some challenges for drivers this weekend.

“I think the biggest thing ... is how you’re going to navigate the bumps in (turns) one and two,” Cole Custer said. “They’re some of the biggest bumps that we have on the schedule.

“At Fontana, we saw the problems people had over the bumps in (turns) three and four, so it’s gonna be a matter of how far you can push it through those bumps and how your car is handling through that.”

Austin Dillon, though, is hopeful that the bumps won’t be as much an issue this weekend.

“(At Las Vegas), it’s an entry issue, unlike last week where it was an exit (of the corner) issue; where you’re kind of leaving the corner with wheel in the car,” he said.

“I think it could definitely be a problem and it will be challenging. The stuff I’ve done on the simulator – for some reason, it wasn’t very upsetting like it was at Fontana. The Fontana stuff was pretty accurate to our sim, where we were busting loose across those bumps. So, I’m hoping that it’s accurate again, as far as the bumps in Vegas not being as much of a problem as they were in Fontana.”

4. Winless streaks

Here is a look at the number of starts a driver has had since their last Cup victory going into Las Vegas:

1 - Austin Cindric

3 - Alex Bowman

7 - Bubba Wallace

8 - Denny Hamlin

10 - Martin Truex Jr.

12 - Ryan Blaney

16 - Aric Almirola

17 - Kurt Busch

18 - Chase Elliott

19 - Kyle Busch

28 - Brad Keselowski

31 - Joey Logano

35 - William Byron

35 - Justin Haley

36 - Christopher Bell

37 - Michael McDowell

45 - Kevin Harvick

55 - Austin Dillon

57 - Cole Custer

85 - Erik Jones

130 - Greg Biffle

165 - Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

197 - Chris Buescher

5. Looking ahead

After this weekend’s race at Las Vegas, a 1.5-mile speedway, the Cup Series will primarily race at tracks 1 mile or less through mid-April.

After Las Vegas, the series heads to Phoenix, a 1-mile track, on March 13. Cup teams will compete at the repaved 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 20) and then the Circuit of the Americas road course on March 27 before three consecutive short track races: Richmond on April 3, Martinsville on April 9 and the dirt race at Bristol on April 17.

Las Vegas, Phoenix, Bristol and Martinsville each will host playoff races. Bristol will be the cutoff race in the first round of the Cup playoffs. Las Vegas is the opening race in the third round. Martinsville is the last race before the championship event at Phoenix.