A NASCAR Cup Series driver's rookie season is for learning. Sure, by the time they get to that level, drivers can handle a racecar, but they're now racing against the top competition in NASCAR. Logging laps, learning how to race those elite drivers, taking home a few top-10 finishes — that's what makes for a successful first year.
But that wasn't good enough for 2020 Rookie of the Year Cole Custer. He had to go out and win.
Custer took his first career Cup Series victory at Kentucky Speedway, forcing his way to the front in a wild finish and cementing both a playoff spot and rookie honors for the season as the only first-year driver to make the postseason.
His two top 5s and seven top 10s, while not wildly outstanding numbers, were perfectly reasonable for an inexperienced driver, and when added to Custer's success in the Xfinity Series, they indicate a driver with long-term potential.
Stewart-Haas Racing moved Custer into its No. 41 entry last year and paired him with Xfinity crew chief Mike Shiplett, with whom Custer won seven NXS races in 2019. Shiplett hadn't been on the box in the Cup Series since 2011, but he knew his young driver, and that helped Custer adapt, perhaps faster than he would have with a new crew chief. If it takes a year for a driver and crew chief to really jell, then Custer and Shiplett had already had that year, and it gave them an advantage. Shiplett remains at the helm this year, and with added Cup experience, the main expectation should be improving across the board over last year and finding consistency closer to the front of the field.
SHR's look this year will be different than 2020, with Clint Bowyer retiring and Chase Briscoe taking over the No. 14, making the team a mix of youth and experience that should benefit Custer and Briscoe. Both Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola are perennial playoff contenders who know how to be consistent and contend for wins.
Custer's team is team co-owner Gene Haas' baby and has sported Haas Automation as primary sponsor; that's not likely to change, as it's been a good fit for Haas' business interests. That means there's less pressure to attract outside backing, and Custer, whose father Joe is SHR's Team President, can concentrate on his driving.
The organization gives him stout equipment, Roush-Yates power is among the best in the game, and Custer has no worries about whether his cars can be competitive on a weekly basis.
Which means that Custer has to be a competitive driver on a weekly basis as well. He had a respectable rookie year, but aside from the win, he lacked the finishes he'd have otherwise needed to make the playoffs. He'll need to up his game considerably to make a run this year if he doesn't win his way in.
Custer's history in the Truck and Xfinity series certainly suggests he'll learn to be competitive. He's won in both of those series as well as Cup, and more importantly, racked up top-5 and top-10 finishes, which are the bread and butter of a good season overall. He's proven he can win in Cup competition. Now he needs to add more consistency to his resume. If he can do that, he'll be a playoff contender down the road for years to come.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 66/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)