By Toby Christie, NASCAR Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas — It had been a rocky start to the season for NASCAR Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer. Through the first five races of 2017, the 19-year-old driver had already crashed out twice (Daytona and Fontana), and had finished 21st-or-worse in three races. In Saturday’s My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, Custer flipped the script and had one of the best races of his brief Xfinity Series career.
Custer rolled from the grid in the sixth position to start the day, but for the first half of the race he was basically a non-factor. Custer had the disadvantage of starting from the outside lane on the initial start of the race. As a result, he slipped from his great starting spot to 13th by the end of the Stage. But the California native kept his nose clean which was important on a day where so many contenders found trouble.
Under the caution between Stages 1 and 2, Custer rolled the dice and took just two tires. The strategy got his No. 00 Ford Mustang up to fourth spot, but this would mean he would be stuck in the un-rubbered outside lane at the newly repaved TMS.
Custer dropped like a rock, and by the next caution on lap 62 Custer had slipped to 14th.
On lap 67, Custer skillfully avoided a five-car melee in front of him, to keep him in the race. Custer and his crew opted to throw away points for Stage 2, in hopes of a better overall race finish as they stopped for tires and fuel during a caution on lap 84. As the checkered flag fell for Stage 2, Custer was still mired back in 14th. But during the caution before Stage 3, the majority of the field pitted, while Custer stayed on track. This gave Custer important track position, and he was on nearly equal tires to his competition.
Custer would hang around the top-10 the rest of the day, and when the checkered flag was shown for the final time, he was the highest finishing Xfinity Series regular in the field in fifth.
Custer hopes the great run Saturday at Texas will provide his Stewart-Haas Racing team some much needed momentum going forward.
“I think it will be really important for us. We had pretty solid cars the last couple weeks and even at Atlanta we had a good car just haven’t gotten the finishes. We haven’t done that. It was me making mistakes and just having random things happen,” Custer admitted. “If we can keep these solid runs going we will work our way back up there in the points. I feel like we can do this. We have had fast cars the last couple of weeks. We will just keep plugging away at it.”
Custer said after biding his time for the first half of the race, the new track surface finally began taking in some tire rubber. He believes the track should start to find even more of a groove in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
“Yeah, it rubbered up halfway through the race and then you kind of had to back it down mostly in [turns] one and two just to try to keep it on the bottom and hug the line. That seemed like it was pretty good,” Custer explained. “Three and four you could run about a half car width up and be pretty good but it will probably keep widening out tomorrow.”
Custer and the rest of the Xfinity Series garage will enjoy their second off week in the last three weeks. Custer will ride into Bristol Motor Speedway hoping to continue finding positive results.