Cole Custer And Stewart-Haas Racing Continue Stride Toward The NASCAR XFINITY Series Championshipby Hunter Thomas October 10, 2017
CONCORD, N.C. – Cole Custer continued his season success on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway as he advanced to the second round of the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs.
Custer finished sixth in the Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina this past weekend, earning his 16th top-10 finish of 2017. With the successful season-long performance, you’d think that the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford team has been competing for championships for years, but this season is actually the team’s debut effort. Custer hopes to capture Stewart-Haas Racing’s first NASCAR XFINITY Series championship in November.
The 19-year-old currently sits fifth in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs and is only 19 points back from standings leader, William Byron; however, the road to championship contention didn’t come without dedicated hard work on and off of the racetrack. The team was quickly assembled only three months before the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, and by the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Custer earned the team’s first top-10 of the season.
“It pretty much started in the off-season, I guess we started around November, and then we pretty much didn’t have anything in the shop until about the end of January, I would say,” Custer said. “It was pretty stressful for everybody. Everybody was kind of thrashing.”
Custer continued and said, “We had almost nothing, so it was pretty amazing how fast it all came together, and we were able to test at Atlanta, and we actually were pretty fast, so that was a really good sign for us that we at least worked really hard and we’re going to have some speed this year.”
Throughout the first 10 race of the year, Custer and the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford team had their ups and downs. In that particular stretch, Custer earned five finishes inside the top-15. One finish was a fifth at Texas Motor Speedway in April and another was a seventh-place effort at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. The other five races included finishes outside of the top-20, and three of them resulted in accidents. As the season progressed, so did the team, and it wasn’t long before finishing inside the top-10 and top-five were weekly occurrences.
“I feel like at the start of the year, we started out with some pretty good speed, and we weren’t really getting the finishes that we wanted though,” Custer said. “From there, I think that I got better at just knowing how to race everybody, I think is the biggest thing. It just got better and better as the year went on, and we might have had some struggles throughout the year, but I think you expect that with a new team and a rookie driver. Right now, I think that we’re starting to hit our stride, and we really found some things that I like and that our team likes with our cars too. It’s all coming together right now.
Over the course of the season, rookie test sessions have really helped Custer get familiar with the racetracks. For example, at Darlington Raceway, Custer participated in a test session prior to the VFW Sport Clips Haircuts 200. He had never clocked a lap on the treacherous racetrack until the test. As a result to the extra track time, he captured a solid ninth-place finish at the track, Too Tough To Tame.
“It’s just unloading at the track, I know where I need to be on the track,” Custer said about the rookie test sessions. “That’s definitely important, and it helps us a lot.”
Stewart-Haas Racing has really concentrated its efforts on the 1.5-mile tracks with the NASCAR XFINITY Series program, and the success is showing. Throughout the season, Custer has earned more points on the 1.5-mile tracks than any series regular. That is quite a feat for a team that hasn’t even completed its first full season.
This past weekend, the sixth-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway was more than just a solid performance. The event marked the final race of the opening round of the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs. Now that Custer is in the second round, a championship run is within grasp if he and his team members can continue their season performance.
“I was happy with the improvements we made through the weekend, so I’m looking forward to the next round,” Custer said following the Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. “It’s going to be a dogfight, that’s for sure. Everybody in this next round has a lot of speed. I think if we can win a race it’s going to be huge. It will be tough, but we just have to really be on our game and fire on all cylinders.”
Custer has two career wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but he has yet to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. He finished fourth once in 2016 when he was competing for JR Motorsports, and so far this year, his best finish is also a fourth-place finish, but Custer believes that he and his team are right on the cusp of celebrating the first victory.
“We’ve definitely gotten close in the last few races,” Custer said. “We just need to finish it out. We’ve definitely been running races better. We’re closing in on it I would say.
Winning a race would be one thing, but winning a championship would be an incredible achievement for the new team. Although Stewart-Haas Racing has a very successful Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series program, the team is competing against stout competition in the NASCAR XFINITY Series as well. Most notably, JR Motorsports that currently controls the first three spots in the points standings. It may sound strange, but a win isn’t exactly necessary to win the championship. All Custer has to do is continue to advance through the Playoff rounds and beat out three of the Championship 4 contenders if he were to compete for the series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
“It would be amazing,” said Custer on the possibility of winning a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship. “I don’t know if there’s anybody that has worked harder than our team over the offseason and during the start of the season for sure. Even now, it’s starting to slow down a little bit, but it’s still not too easy. I think it would be pretty big for us to win a championship in our first year with how hard everybody worked.”
Next on the schedule for the NASCAR XFINITY Series is the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway on Saturday, October 21. Live coverage of the race will broadcast on NBC and the Motor Racing Network (MRN) at 3 p.m. ET.