NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Cole Custer Building a Notebook in Rookie Season

As the 2017 XFINITY Series season began, there were no set expectations for Cole Custer. He was a proven winner in the Camping World Truck Series, but Stewart-Haas Racing was making its debut in the second-tier division of NASCAR.

Custer, 19, showed a lot of speed in the opening months of the season, but successful results were hard to come by. The No. 00 car crashed out in three of the opening seven races, with four finishes outside the top 20. Since then, the newly-formed race team has been on the rise, driving up to sixth in the championship standings.

Through the opening 22 events of 2017, Custer has four top-five finishes, posting a season-high result of fourth at Dover International Speedway in early June. The California native has accumulated ten top 10s, placing him in a four-way tie with Justin Allgaier, Brennan Poole and Daniel Hemric for the third most finishes inside the top 10.

“I’ve been fairly happy with it, Custer told Frontstretch of his rookie campaign. ” It’s been going better, but I can get a little bit better and we all can get a little bit better and gain a little more speed out of it. We’re definitely going in the right direction.”

Three of the team’s top 10s have come at 1.5-mile venues. While competing in a handful of XFINITY races for JR Motorsports in 2016, Custer picked up his first career top-five result at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a mile-and-a-half track.

That’s exactly where Custer feels most comfortable with the No. 00 car.

“The mile-and-a-halves and our aero has been fairly good,” he said. “We can get better at the notebook and just building that and trying to get our handling a little better. I think we’ve definitely made it strong aero wise in my opinion.”

While making the jump to the XFINITY Series, Custer was doing so with rookie crew chief Jeff Meendering. A decade ago he was atop the pit box for Jeff Gordon, replacing a suspended Steve Letarte. In 2008, the crew chief made the jump over to Richard Petty Motorsports to lead Bobby Labonte. Since then, he has not called the shots.

Knowing that has made Custer’s mid-season surge even that more impressive.

“It was really an unknown of how it was going to play out,” Custer said. “A rookie driver with a rookie crew chief in the XFINITY Series and a new team to the series. We didn’t know what to expect. It was nice to have some speed for sure at the start of the year. It’s gone really well.”

The coveted notebook is what most crew chiefs and organizations thrive off of going back to racetracks for a second time. Because SHR is new to the series, it faced the challenge of creating one and be solidly in the playoffs with four races remaining until the cutoff at Chicagoland Speedway.

Though it may have been a bigger factor at the beginning of the season, the duo have built a tidy notebook. Having Kevin Harvick on the team, who has four top-five finishes in five starts this season, has also helped out the rookie pairing.

“It’s definitely hurt us a little bit,” Custer said of not having the notebook. “We’ve had really smart people that have been able to put a lot of speed into the cars on the weekends. It’s just hard for us to know what we need to do going into a race from practice to the race. It’s having notes on what we need to do to the car throughout the weekend is the biggest thing we struggle on.

“I’ve leaned a lot on Kevin. I try to talk to him before every weekend in terms of driving wise and how to get around places. He’s been a huge help. He’s been great. He’s shared a lot of stuff. I don’t know if he can tell me everything, but he helps me a ton going to new tracks.”

Sitting sixth in the overall standings, Custer is seventh on the playoff grid with Ryan Reed hopping in front of him due to his victory at Daytona. As we saw in the inaugural XFINITY playoff battle, a lot of things can happen as Ty Dillon was bounced after the first round.

Leading up to the playoffs, Custer has no XFINITY experience at any of the four venues. During the playoffs last season, he started a pair of races at Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway with a best finish of 17th in the season finale.

Going into the playoffs this season, Custer has high expectations.

“I think we are a top-five team for XFINITY regulars,” he said. “With everyone here, we’re a top 10 team. We have room to improve, but we’re not too far off. I want to win the drivers championship, but making it to the final round is the biggest thing. We just need to focus on that.”

XFINITY Notes 

  • Kyle Busch is coming off his fifth win of the season, four of them coming since leading 70 laps at Kentucky Speedway last month. At Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend, the No. 18 dominated, even giving the field a head start in the second stage by speeding on put road. The 2009 series champion came from the back to pick up the stage victory, sweeping all three stages.
  • The Series heads to Road America where Michael McDowell is the defending winner. There are no Cup regulars in the entry list, as they are in their final off week of the year. Paul Menard was the victor in 2015. The last XFINITY regular to win at the famed road course was Brendan Gaughan in 2014. Parker Kligerman and Ryan Ellis will be making their 2017 debut in the series, while Austin Cindric will be competing in his first career XFINITY event.
  • Speaking of Gaughan, he was upset with the way he has been races over the past two races. On Friday, Jeb Burton nailed him twice, first cutting his tire down, the second time, he flat out took him the NASCAR veteran out. Their rivalry that has now brewed took to Twitter on Saturday with both sides explaining what happened.

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