By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Six drivers made the move to NASCAR’s top division with the goal of winning Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors at season’s end. After this Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, one man could walk away with the award and that’s none other than Cole Custer.
Due to his maiden Cup win at Kentucky Speedway last month, Custer punched his ticket into the playoffs and currently the only rookie to do so with just one regular season race remaining.
The scenario is simple, should fellow rookies Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek, and Tyler Reddick fail to win at Daytona, Rookie of the Year goes to the 22-year-old Californian.
A “wore the hell” out Custer took some time speaking with the press at Dover International Speedway Tuesday where he was testing the Next Gen Cup car that’s set to debut in 2022.
When asked about the likelihood of winning ROTY after Daytona, Custer said it would be a cool moment in his young career, but rest assure the battle isn’t over just yet as the quartet of he, Bell, JHN and Reddick have a combined total of Custer’s win, five top-5s and 20 top-10s.
“Honestly, I think it was cool to have the rookie battle this year. We had a lot of good guys in there with me, Tyler, Christopher and John Hunter. It was a really good rookie class,” said Custer. “It’s still not over because obviously somebody could make the playoffs, but it would be really cool to have that title, but, overall, you’ve still got to find ways to make yourself better.
“There are some days Christopher is the fastest rookie, some days Tyler is and some days I am. John Hunter has done a really good job in their stuff too, so you’ve got to find ways every single race to try to make yourself better.”
The turning point of Custer’s rookie campaign was the 16th race of the year at Indianapolis where he finished fifth. One week later at Kentucky, his momentum continued where he wowed the folks back home with his clutch victory where not only he got a playoff berth, but also boosted the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team’s morale.
“It’s been pretty game-changing,” said Custer, who only scored a single top-10 at Phoenix in the first 15 races. “The start of the year was pretty rough for me especially, just trying to get a feel for the cars and to come home with that win it just took so much pressure off and I think it brought the morale up in our team and now it’s just a matter of trying to get back.”
If you include Indy and Kentucky, Custer has finished inside the top-10 in five out of the last 10 races with additional feats taking place at Kansas (seventh), Loudon (eighth) and last Sunday’s Drydene 311 at Dover (tenth).
With the 10-race playoffs coming around the corner, Custer’s team are focused making No. 41 Ford Mustang competitive so they’re not viewed as an entity destined to be knocked out of the first round as no rookie has ever won the Cup title.
“We need to be fully focused going into the playoffs and make sure we’re 100 percent and try to make a run at it,” said Custer. “We don’t just want to be a part of the playoffs, we want to be competitive.”