By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — NASCAR Xfinity Series title contender Cole Custer is far from slowing down during the series off-week as he made the trip to Sonoma Raceway to gain track experience for the upcoming road races this summer.
Custer will be driving a third Sunrise Ford Racing entry in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and is one of two Xfinity regulars that’ll participate in Saturday’s Procore 200.
“We reached out to Bob (Bruncati, owner of Sunrise Ford Racing). Obviously, he’s a Ford team and he was all for it,” Custer on how the deal came together. “I’m lucky enough to really thank him to run his car and hopefully we get them a win. They’ve always been good here in the past, so I think we should be pretty strong.”
The other two Bruncati owned cars are K&N West regulars Trevor Huddleston, who won a thriller at Irwindale in April, and rookie Jagger Jones, a third-generation racer. Custer said if they want advice on how to compete for a championship, they’re more than welcome to as his team goal is getting Ford camp into victory lane, a feat Bruncati’s team accomplished in 2013 with former driver and two-time K&N West champion Derek Thorn.
“Anyway I can help Bob’s team build a notebook also and just try to get him an idea where his cars are at,” Custer commented. “I think if Trevor and Jagger have any questions for me, I’m more than willing to help them and try to get them closer to winning the championship.”
Custer described Sonoma as a technical track, especially when a competitor shifts and it’s important to drive off good to avoid any driver errors.
“It’s really slow speed and you really got to get your drive off good because you’re slipping and sliding around,” Custer on Sonoma. “It’s definitely a tough one, so it’s good to run here and try to build a notebook. It’s a good one to get prepared for the other tracks because it is one of the most difficult ones we go to. It’s definitely
The Ladera Ranch native said his goal coming to Sonoma is to help him get back into the mindset of the four road courses (Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road America and the Charlotte Roval) coming up, which will play a vital role into the championship.
“There’s a lot of different characteristics about it,” said Custer. “Just getting back into the rhythm of downshifting and techniques you can do on road courses will help me a lot with the races coming up in the Xfinity Series. Also, just building a notebook for Sonoma, and we’re running the Carousel this year, so it’ll be good getting experience on that.”
This season, there’s a new “Big Three” in NASCAR, consisting of Custer, defending champion Tyler Reddick and the consistently dominant Christopher Bell. With Mike Shiplett as Custer’s new crew chief, performance has improved as Custer sits third in the standings after 14 races. Among his accolades are four poles and three victories and believes his No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing team are capable of making it back to the Championship 4 and capture the championship after finishing second in points last season.
“I think three of us have competed for a lot of wins this year. I think our team is just going to get better and better throughout the year,” said Custer. “I’m working with a new crew chief this year, so I think when we go back to tracks for the second time, it’s going to help us a lot.
“It’s been a great year. I think all the guys at our shop have done a great job giving me fast cars. If we keep it going, I think we’ll have a really good shot of winning the championship.”
Each of Custer’s Xfinity Series wins in 2019 have also been memorable. This includes a tremendous battle to the finish with Austin Cindric at Richmond and a last-lap pass on Reddick at Pocono. However, one stood out to Custer and that’s a win at his hometrack in Fontana, where he held off all-time series winner Kyle Busch to score the biggest win of his career.
“That was crazy. It was a huge win for me because it was my home track,” Custer on his Fontana victory. “It was our sponsors home track, so it was a perfect day. To be able to beat Kyle (Busch) was huge. He’s going to go down as one of the best in our sport. To be able to hold him off was pretty special.”
Custer’s crazy weekend would get crazier as during the middle of having breakfast, he got a call from Richard Childress Racing. It required him to be on stand-by for Austin Dillon, who was ill throughout the weekend. Fortunately for Dillon, he was able to run the entire 400-mile race and scored a 10th place finish.
“When I got the call to maybe fill-in for Austin, it was pretty crazy,” said Custer. “I was eating breakfast and wasn’t expecting it at all and had to rush to the racetrack and try to fit into his gear. That was pretty stressful, but obviously Austin is a tough guy, so he toughed it out and was able to run the race luckily. It was pretty crazy weekend.”
With a lot of racing yet to go, the biggest game plan for Custer and the entire team is to decimate the mistakes, and stay out of trouble as the third-place points man has two DNFs this season as a result of crashes. In comparison to his other two title rivals, Reddick has one and Bell has two.
“For us it’s not to make any mistakes. We’re going to try and build up as many playoff points as we can through the summer,” said Custer. “Going into the playoffs, we just got to try and stay solid and not make any mistakes, not having any huge problems. I think we should be able to make it into the Final Four because we have the speed to do it. That’s the biggest key for us.”