Expectations were high for Cole Custer heading into 2018, his second full season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for Stewart-Haas Racing. Compared to his rookie year, the No. 00 team has made massive gains.
Custer, 20, has yet to visit Victory Lane this season, something his part-time teammate Kevin Harvick did at Atlanta Motor Speedway in late February. However, he has been impressively consistent, matching his total top-five finishes from last year (seven) with 13 races to go in the season. He has a total of 16 top 10s in 20 races this year.
“It’s been a good year so far,” Custer told Frontstretch. “We didn’t start the year the way we wanted to, but now we’ve started to hit our stride and living in the top five. We’ve just to keep going and plugging away and we’ll have it all come together for us.”
Custer ended 2017 with a bang, winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway in dominating fashion, leading 182 of 200 laps. He and crew chief Jeff Meendering were starting to mesh, finishing fifth in points. Custer narrowly missed his chance to compete for a championship after being eliminated from the playoffs following a seventh-place finish at ISM Raceway the week prior to stomping the competition in South Beach.
Fast forward almost nine months, and Custer is a lock for the playoffs this season as he sits second in points, 329 points above the cut-line with six races to go.
Meanwhile, he believes the No. 00 team has some work to do heading into the postseason.
“It’s tough because I think we’re all really close, and it’s a combination of things that have to go right,” Custer said. “Whether it’s me giving better feedback — I don’t know — we’re so close, it’s so hard to say what the things are that we need to get better at.
“I think it’s everybody hitting their stride. I’ve gotten more aggressive on restarts and racing people more aggressively in general. I feel like we have a good idea of where we want to be with the cars going into the race and have had a good stretch of tracks for ourselves. I think there’s no reason why we can’t continue running like we are and get a win soon.”
Custer’s season didn’t get off to the best of starts. At Daytona International Speedway, the No. 00 Ford finished 14th, and the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he crashed out 10 laps into the race, earning a 39th-place finish. Since then, it’s been a different story, with those 16 top-10 finishes coming in the past 18 events, jumping 23 positions in the points.
While Custer’s performance has dramatically increased this season, it’s a company-wide stride at winning titles, as the SHR Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams have also seen more speed than in 2017. The driver/crew chief pairing leans on the Cup veterans for advice.
“You have the same mindset of how you work and how you push things,” Custer said. “You do see it with how we’re running and how the Cup teams are hitting their stride, also. All the [Cup] drivers especially are open to it. I talk to Kevin [Harvick] a lot because he runs the XFINITY Series a decent amount. Everyone is open to sharing information, it’s just how much you can share.”
As the regular season is coming to a close, Custer believes he has that raw speed teams hope for among XFINITY Series regulars. However, the top five in points keep fluctuating week-to-week. At times the No. 00 is quickest, though Elliott Sadler led the points for 15 races, and Christopher Bell has been white hot lately. Justin Allgaier has shown flashes of brilliance, and Daniel Hemric continues to be consistently consistent.
So who’s the favorite for the title?
“I don’t know. We’re all pretty equal right now, so I don’t know if there is one guy that really stands out,” Custer said. “I think right now we’re one of the cars with the most speed. There are a lot of guys who are really close right now. I think we’ve still got to distinguish ourselves, but I think right now we’re right in the fight for it.”
Custer admits that getting opportunities in a Cup car this season for Rick Ware Racing has helped him at the XFINITY level. Thus far, he’s run two races in the premier series, with an average finish of 25.5
“It’s more laps, and you’re also going from a faster car that’s more out of control to a slower car,” Custer said. “So it just gives you more confidence when you go to the XFINITY car.”
Despite being right in the hunt for his first NASCAR title, Custer is expected to compete in one more Cup race this season, though the driver is not sure which exact race that will be.
- After the XFINITY Series competed in the rain at Watkins Glen International last weekend, the series will turn left and right for the second consecutive week — this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Justin Marks is the only former winner at the track in the field, and the average starting position for the eventual winner is 6.2.
- Brendan Gaughan will make his season debut this weekend, driving the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing, while Katherine Legge will make her series debut.
- Following a second-place finish last weekend at WGI, GMS Racing announced that Bill Elliott will return to the XFINITY Series at Road America on Aug. 25. It will be his first time running in the series since 2005 when he finished 16th at Memphis Motorsports Park for Evernham Motorsports.