AVONDALE, Ariz. — When getting demoted to a lower series, there are many different ways a driver can approach the season. Some drivers lose their drive and struggle and some use it to reinvent themselves.
For Cole Custer, going from the NASCAR Cup Series back to the NASCAR XFINITY Series was a opportunity to address some unfinished business.
After running runner-up in 2018-19, the Ladera Ranch, CA, native did one better in 2023, finishing the job at Phoenix to score his elusive NASCAR XFINITY Series championship.
“It means the world,” Custer said. “You get kind of knocked down a little bit. When you go to the Cup level, it’s so competitive. Things can just not go right for a few years. It’s just how it is, how tight it is. I worked with a great group of guys up there, but how it all works out, sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
When it was announced that Stewart-Haas was putting Ryan Preece in the No. 41 car and moving Custer back to XFINITY, the No. 00 team immediately entered the conversation of championship favorites.
However, the season had very humble beginnings. Despite leading 85 laps in the opening six races, Custer recorded a single top-10 at Daytona and sat 12th in points.
This included a 12th place finish at Phoenix after starting on the pole.
“We really didn’t start out the year very good,” Custer said. “We came here the first race and we sucked. We ran horrible.”
Despite the slow start, the team really hit their stride over the next seven races, scoring six top-fives and notching a win at Portland.
After a second win at Chicago, where he led every lap of the rain-shortened street race, Custer had a lackluster end to the regular season and entered the Playoffs as the No. 4 seed, well behind the top two seeds, John Hunter Nemechek and Austin Hill.
Once the Playoffs started, Stewart-Haas, as a whole, turned it on. Teammate Riley Herbst, after missing the Playoffs, ended the season with five top-fives in a row, scoring that elusive first win at Las Vegas.
As for Custer, he scored top-10s in six of the seven Playoff races and led a lap in every race. Even then, it took Custer backing across the line at Martinsville, joining Nemechek, Justin Allgaier and a surging Sam Mayer in the title fight at Phoenix.
Whereas long-runs to the finish saw Custer lose out to Tyler Reddick at Homestead in both 2018-19, Saturday night saw him took the lead from Nemechek on lap 157 and appeared to have the race, and the championship, in control until a caution on lap 197 changed everything.
With the opportunity of a lifetime two miles away, Custer had to fend off his championship rivals that ran 2-3-4. Phoenix’s dog leg allowed for everyone to swarm Custer and leave him trapped in the middle.
For a moment on the penultimate lap, all four title contenders ran four-wide. Fortunately for Custer, he came out on top.
As Nemechek drifted up the track in turns 1-2, Custer was able to hit the gas in the middle of the corner and get clear. As he got out ahead, the battle was for second as Custer won by .601 seconds.
For Stewart-Haas Racing, a team going through its first winless Cup season and less than 24 hours from bidding farewell to both Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola, the impact that Custer’s championship has is hard to measure.
One of the first to congratulate the 25-year old was co-owner Tony Stewart. Stewart was reportedly the one that wanted Preece in the No. 41 and for Custer to come back to XFINITY. Stewart knew the move wouldn’t be easy for Custer, but would be crucial for the young driver’s future success.
“It was a calculated decision to move him back, and it was for him to gain confidence,” Stewart said. “It’s character-building. And it’s like I told him tonight before we came into the media center, I said, ‘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.’
“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.”