By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season for the full-time drivers in the series leading into February’s running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: Rookie
Career Wins: Nine in Xfinity Series and Two in Truck Series
Six years competing on the national tour has culminated to this pinnacle moment for Cole Custer.
It feels like yesterday when Custer broke through with a win at Loudon in just his seventh Truck Series start at the tender age of 16 in 2014, the youngest national touring winner in history.
Despite showing some flashes of brilliance, Custer’s road to Cup has been a rocky road.
At times, fans questioned his ability to race due to his inconsistency in trucks that prevented him from being legit title contender.
People’s perception of the Ladera Ranch, California native changed once he got some experience at Stewart-Haas Racing in the Xfinity Series under his belt.
Whether its owning the competition at Homestead or sneaking by a competitor in the final corner at Pocono, Custer has proven to be a tough dynamic racer.
In just 2019 alone, Custer was blistering fast with seven wins, six poles and 17 top-fives, but he did have some stiff competition though from two other fierce rivals – Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.
Known as the Xfinity Series version of “The Big Three,” they won 21 out of the 33 races and ultimately battled to the absolute bitter end at Homestead. Custer would come up a spot short in the glorious title chase as he wasn’t able to beat series champion Reddick last November.
“The entire group gave me a great car to come out here and contend for the win,” Custer on his runner-up campaign at Homestead. “When I took the lead I was kind of being patient with it because I didn’t want to get in the wall and ruin our chances, but Tyler Reddick was able to jump up there like he did in 2018 and was just too good at ripping the fence.
“He was able to get around us and I just pushed a little too hard and got into the wall, which then dropped us back a little bit. After that I knew I had to go and I ended up finding some speed but it was just too late.
“It’s really frustrating to finish second again, but everyone at SHR had a great season that we can hang our hats on, I just wish it could have ended differently.”
Despite not winning the Xfinity Series championship at the track he’s mastered the last few years, the sudden blossom from Custer, who will turn 22 Thursday, was superb enough that the time of going Cup racing was paramount. Just exactly what SHR co-owner Gene Haas wanted from him after the media asked what’s the missing piece of the puzzle that would earn him a gig in the premier series.
“I was asked last year about this time what Cole needed to do to earn his place in the NASCAR Cup Series, and I said he needed to win,” Haas said. “Well, Cole has done that – a lot. He showed that he’s ready to compete at the next level and we’re giving him that opportunity.”
Like Custer’s career ladder into NASCAR, getting a full-time Cup ride was also a media circus throughout the second half of 2019. Rumors surrounded him for months as to where he’ll end up in 2020.
Such as the moment Go Fas Racing announced its technical alliance with SHR, people immediately speculated Custer would replace Corey LaJoie before GFR owner Archie St. Hilaire debunked the rumor and kept LaJoie for a second year.
Then there was Custer perhaps replacing Daniel Suarez at SHR or even stay in Xfinity for another year where he’d be the clear cut favorite to win the championship. Before the finale at Homestead, it turned out to be the former of the two possibilities at SHR.
Custer was finally announced as the new man of the No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang, but he won’t make the jump alone. The brains behind Custer’s success, Mike Shiplett, will continue calling the shots.
Tony Stewart believed Custer was ready for the next step and make some noise due to his monstrous success in Xfinity the last two years.
“Cole has certainly earned his spot in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020,” Stewart said. “He’s consistently running up front, leading laps and winning races. The level of competition increases dramatically in the NASCAR Cup Series, but it’s where Cole belongs after having proven himself in the Xfinity Series.”
Custer’s Daytona 500 debut isn’t going to be his first Cup rodeo. He’s already taken a crack at the premiere series in 2018 when he ran three races for Rick Ware Racing in 2018.
During qualifying at the fall Richmond race, Custer surprised a lot of people by putting a Ware car, close to always starting at the rear of the field, in the 10th starting position – the team’s best start to date. It’s pace wasn’t matched on race day as Custer finished 26th, four laps behind race winner Kyle Busch.
Out of his three starts, a 25th in his debut at Las Vegas was his best and one of only eight times RWR finished in the top-25.
Perhaps more important for race fans than what Custer has done is the trio will be fighting for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Many are already claiming it could be the best rookie class of all-time as a shot at playoff supremacy isn’t too far of a stretch.
Among the three, it seems Custer would be considered the favorite because he’s in top-tier equipment compared to Bell’s Leavine Family Racing, which had its first-ever top-25 points campaign last year, and Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing, a team that’s struggled in Cup the past few years.
For now, it’s all prediction talk as Custer reflected on his long and winding journey that began in quarter midgets when he was five-years-old.
“This is the moment I’ve worked for ever since I first started racing,” Custer said. “I’ve learned a lot in these last three years in the Xfinity Series, and to be able to stay within Stewart-Haas Racing will make a steep learning curve a little less steep. I know the people, the culture and what’s expected of me. I’m ready for this challenge.”