By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
At the start of a typical race, a driver starts with four fresh tires. Saturday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway was anything but typical for NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer. Early troubles left Custer scratching and clawing his way through the field to finish fifth.
Race strategy by Custer’s Stewart Haas Racing crew chief Jeff Meendering helped Custer earn that top-five finish. At the end of Stage 1, the Meendering elected for his rookie driver to take the wave around to earn their lap back. Not even five laps later, an accident involving Angela Ruch allowed Custer to remain on the lead lap.
Early in the race, it looked like a top-10 finish, let alone a top-five would be impossible for Custer’s No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang. He plummeted from his second-place starting position, the car uncontrollably loose. By the time Custer got to pit road, he had fallen outside the top-20 and was trapped a lap down by an untimely caution. A tire change revealed that Custer’s left-rear Goodyear Eagle tire had a puncture, with only 11lbs of pressure remaining.
Custer was happy just to salvage a good day,
“I think we just had a flat tire at the start of the race and had to go pit but we kept our heads on straight and tried to do what we could to salvage a good day. We all did a really good job doing that, staying within our limits and get a decent finish. I think we did a good job of that and had a fast race car. I can’t really say I am too upset or too down going into Phoenix or anything. It is just two weeks in a row that we had some bad luck.”
Custer’s climb through the field was slow. It took the entire second stage for him to climb from outside the top-20 to seventh. It was then that the strength of his Roush-Yates powered Ford shined. Custer sliced through the slower traffic as he battled with fellow Playoff drivers Brennan Poole, Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft, and William Byron.
The fifth-place finish was Custer’s sixth top-five finish this season. The finish allowed him to climb from eighth to sixth in the Playoff Standings. However, Custer slipped from being eight points outside the Championship Four to 13-points behind the cutoff, still held by Brennan Poole. Only one race remains for Custer to attempt to fight for a championship at Homestead
Custer is optimistic about his Xfinity Series Championship chances,
“Yeah, we are only like 13 points out of the top four right now I think. For us, we struggled a little in the middle part of the race but like I said, I can’t really be down with our two weekends. We have had two pretty good race cars but have just had a flat tire in both the races. It is what it is for us. I think there is no reason why we can’t make that up.”
Now Custer, Meendering, and the entire Stewart Haas Racing team will focus on Phoenix Raceway, their last chance to make the Championship Four.