By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cole Custer’s return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series after a three-year stint in the Cup Series may have been a “demotion,” per se, but the driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford took the move in stride and now can call himself a champion.
“You get knocked down a little bit and you just want to prove that you can go out there and do it,” Custer said. “I think these guys have just really always believed in me all year and I just can’t thank them enough for giving me really fast race cars and still believing in me when things weren’t going great.”
The 25-year-old native of Ladera Ranch, Calif. picked up right where he left off in 2019 during his last full-time season in the Xfinity Series, winning on two different occasions and putting himself back in position to race for a championship.
After starting the night in seventh-place, Custer made his presence clear on the one-mile oval in the Arizona desert, leading four different times for a total of 96 laps. With a clear lead over fellow title contender John Hunter Nemechek in the closing laps, the championship was his to lose.
The came the dreaded yellow flag with five laps to go, pushing the race into overtime, and giving Nemechek, Justin Allgaier, and Sam Mayer one more shot and surpassing him for the trophy.
Starting on the outside of the front row for the restart, Custer ceded ground to both Nemechek and Allgaier through the dogleg, but when both drivers washed up the track in Turn 2, he was able to pull into a three-wide tie with them heading into Turn 3.
By the time the field was back around to the finish line to take the white flag, Custer had pulled clear of his championship rivals and from there he was able to keep them in his rear-view mirror for the final lap, crossing the line to score the win and the title.
Justin Allgaier, who was making his sixth Championship 4 appearance and like Custer seeking his first championship, finished the race in third place to once again fall short of an elusive Xfinity Series title.
Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate, Sam Mayer, making his first appearance in the Championship 4, finished the race in fifth. Last, but not least was Nemechek, who was Custer’s most fierce rival in the race, leading 66 laps, cut a tire on the last restart and came home in 28th place.
“I thought it was over,” Custer said of the late caution and the restart. “I mean, I went from first to third and I was able to shift the car all night and the Doug Yates horsepower worked out and pulled me off the corner.
“I can’t believe we won that thing after going back to third on that restart, but I can’t say enough about these guys. I mean, we started the year off and it was a struggle and we kind of had to dig deep with each other and really talk about how to get better.
“To see how much this group has grown through the year and to be a part of something, I knew I wanted to work with JT. I knew that he was the guy that could make it happen and I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else. I just can’t thank Gene Haas enough. He’s given me opportunities and I wouldn’t be here without him.
“I can’t thank him enough, and Ford Performance, Haas Automation, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s awesome to bring one back to Stewart-Haas right now. Man, I’m gonna enjoy this.”
Afterwards, Tony Stewart, who co-owns Custer’s Ford with Gene Haas, had to watch the replay a few times to try and figure out how Custer pulled off the winning move on the restart.
Once he arrived to the media center for his post-race press conference was still not quite sure he could explain what happened in those closing laps.
“I think the restart at the end of the race was a very good indication and example of how Cole has matured as a driver this year,” said Stewart.
“To watch him go in Turn 1, and he was literally third going into 1, and watch how he did what he had to do to get himself in a good position to get off of Turn 2 was remarkable. Literally I’ve watched the replay four times and I still haven’t totally 100 percent figured out exactly what he did behind the steering wheel, but it was super impressive.”
Stewart added that the decision to send Custer back down to the minor leagues was all part of a plan that he and others in the leadership at Stewart-Haas had to rebuild Custer’s confidence. A decision that is definitely paying dividends based on Saturday’s result.
“This is why we did what we did, and this is what you’re doing, the steps that you’re making and the progress you’ve made this year is exactly what we were hoping for,” Stewart said.
“He’s doing the right things. He will end up in a Cup car at some point I feel like in the future. He’s doing the work. He’s been a great leader at the shop with these guys.
“I have the utmost confidence that he will be back in a Cup car at some point.”