By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – After pacing all three rounds of qualifying on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Cole Custer appeared to be the favorite, especially when taking into account his domination of last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Ford EcoBoost 300.
In 2017, he led 182 of the 200 scheduled laps – a race record – and set the record average speed for an Xfinity Series race at the track (136.140 mph).
After the first two stages of Saturday’s race, it was déjà vu as Custer led all 90 laps in the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford. Pitting for four tires, fuel and air pressure adjustments under the caution for the stage break, Custer exited in the third spot after being caught in traffic on pit road.
Just past halfway of the final stage, green flag pit stops kicked off with Christopher Bell hitting pit road at Lap 141, but the call was made to leave Custer on the track for five additional laps before coming down to take four fresh Goodyear tires and fuel.
The strategy call left Custer in the fifth position after green flag stops cycled through, trailing leader Tyler Reddick by eight seconds.
Custer would utilize the fresher rubber to make his way back up to the second position, passing fellow Championship 4 competitor Christopher Bell with 35 laps remaining and eventually closing to within 2.7 second of Reddick before falling back and taking the checkered flag 6.902 seconds behind the eventual race-winner and 2018 Xfinity Series champion.
“First off, congrats to Tyler. I’m happy for him. He could run the wall better than I could at the end there and we were so far back from our pit stop that once I got to him it seemed like our tires kind of equaled out and then he started running the top and I couldn’t keep up with him,” said a clearly disappointed Custer.
“It is what it is. It was a solid day. We had a fast car, we just didn’t have it play out right at the end. We were really close; it’s just sucks to be second.”
While Custer finished second in the drivers’ standings, the No. 00 car co-owned by Cup Series champion Tony Stewart earned the owners’ title.
“We are proud as an organization to get the owners’ championship, but we wanted to do it with our driver winning the drivers’ championship. That is the hard part about the last race is that it is down to a one-race deal and we just fell a little short. We might have made a mistake on the strategy on pitting too late,” said Stewart.
“It is an awesome day for us, but it would be a hell of a lot more exciting if Cole was out there hoisting the trophy over his head for winning the drivers’ championship.”
While disappointed, Custer was thankful for Haas Automation, Gene Haas, Stewart and everybody that’s been behind him in his sophomore Xfinity Series campaign.
“We still have something to hang our hats on. We still won the owner’s championship, which is really awesome, but I still wanted the driver’s one too,” said the Ladera Ranch, California native.
Custer finished the year with 26 top-10’s, the most among full-time Xfinity Series drivers and earned the most points at 1.5-mile tracks in the series this season. Custer’s six poles were also a series best
“I think I got way better as a driver this year just because I think I got way better at racing, so now it’s just a matter of kind of closing it out. That’s the biggest thing for me, but we’re really close. We’re one step away.”
Custer will return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and the team will expand to two cars with a yet-to-be-named driver behind the wheel of the second Ford.
“We came up short but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. I am proud of Cole as a driver. He has come a long way and keeps getting better and better,” said Stewart, who will look to capture the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title on Sunday with driver Kevin Harvick.
“I’m excited about our Xfinity program – in such a short amount of time to have cars and the personnel that can put these cars up front each weekend and excited about having a second full-time car next year. More resources for Cole and another young driver and we are excited about the program.
“We will just come back next year and try to get him one.”