Cole Custer and his two primary foes for this year’s Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Cup Series know each other quite well. Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell went to the wire in last season’s Xfinity Series championship, with Reddick earning the crown just ahead of Custer in second. Bell, meanwhile, won the season’s most races and finished third in the highest-finisher-take-all playoff finale.
Now, maybe it’s Custer’s turn to score something first — like a first Cup win or the season-long Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award — as the newest driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41.
“We all get along fairly well,” Custer says. “So it should be cool to get to compete against those guys.”
Custer is coming to SHR’s Cup side in place of Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion who went winless while delivering four top 5s and 11 top 10s for the team last year. It was Suarez’s lone season at SHR after two winless Cup seasons driving Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Custer-for-Suarez swap wasn’t official until just before last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It left Suarez stunned, after months of negotiations for an extension appeared to be trending in the right direction and as he collected sponsor dollars to fund the effort.
Instead, SHR — and more specifically team co-owner Gene Haas, who has the controlling interest in the team’s No. 41 car — made the decision to promote Custer, the son of SHR team executive Joe Custer. The choice indicates Haas’ confidence that the 22-year-old Custer can deliver more in the future for the team than Suarez, both financially and competitively.
Of course, it’s not the first time Haas has made that bet. When Kurt Busch was signed to drive the team’s new No. 41 car in 2014, Haas was the primary backer of the effort. It led to six wins over five seasons, including the 2017 Daytona 500.
So Custer enters the season with above-average expectations for a Rookie of the Year candidate — but with the grace of being judged on the rookie curve.
Custer was challenged by SHR management before last season to show gains in his Xfinity effort. Over 33 starts, Custer won seven times (up from one win in each of the two previous seasons), reeled off 17 top-5 finishes and led nearly three times as many laps as he did the year before. In the Xfinity playoff finale, Custer recovered from a tire issue to finish second. All told, the 2019 season was a resounding success.
The most pedestrian part of Custer’s game last season? The Xfinity schedule’s road course events. Custer ranked second in the series in total points earned at short tracks and superspeedways but ranked eighth across the road course races despite finishing in the top 10 each time. It’s the only track type where Custer has yet to win in Xfinity. He has just one road course top-5 finish in 11 starts.
Custer says he’ll prep for this season with plenty of seat time in the simulator, and he’ll study team notes from across SHR. He’ll also lean on his veteran teammates Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. “I think any one of them, even if I can get a little bit of advice, is going to help,” Custer says.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 100/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)