Despite there being half a season left in his NASCAR Cup Series rookie campaign, Cole Custer already has reason to proclaim it’s been a success.
Realistically, Custer’s numbers have not been flashy or anywhere near dominant with four top-10 finishes and an average finish of 19.9. Until recently (three top-five finishes in the last four races), they weren’t very consistent. But there are only two statistics that matter for Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing team: they’ve won a race and will be among the 16-driver playoff field.
And as a bonus, should Custer be the only rookie to qualify for the postseason, he’ll automatically be crowned Rookie of the Year. No other rookie would be able to finish higher than him in points, and the award follows the overall point standings.
Given all the above, and feeling like his No. 41 Ford Mustang team is starting to run more competitively, Custer admits he can look back and say it’s been a successful rookie season. “But, at the same time, I’m not going to be satisfied if we go into the playoffs and get knocked out in the first round and don’t run well,” he said.
“I want to be able to go into the playoffs and be competitive and make a run at it, and not just be a part of it.”
Custer is locked into the playoffs alongside teammate Kevin Harvick and will be the first rookie to make a postseason appearance since 2016 (Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott). SHR also has Aric Almirola safely above the cutline on points while Clint Bowyer, who is near the bubble, cannot afford to slip.
With his plans for the final 10 weeks secure, Custer does not have to stress about the end of the regular season. It includes two doubleheaders, Michigan and Dover, a new road course at Daytona, and the unpredictable Daytona oval.
“I think these next (seven) races we need to be on our game and be on the gas as hard as we can to try and figure everything out and get in a good rhythm and be able to do something once we get into the playoffs,” said Custer. “Because if you don’t have the end of the season work out, you’re not going to be satisfied.”
Pre-pandemic shutdown — the first four races of the year — Custer had racked up three top-20 finishes with a best effort of ninth in Phoenix. However, when the sport returned after a two-month pause, Custer and crew chief Mike Shiplett fell flat.
During the Darlington through Pocono stretch, a 12th-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte was his only top-15 run. Then came a solid top-five outing at Indianapolis in which Custer earned attention for helping Harvick seal the win with a push on a late restart, followed by a surprising and impressive victory at Kentucky.
Last week, Custer and company persevered through a tough night at Kansas with another top-10 finish. He said afterward it was what his team “needed,” and he feels they have been closer to building a baseline for setups and consistency.
“Especially on the 550 (horsepower) racetracks,” said Custer. “I feel like we’ve hit a point where we kind of know what we want to bring to the racetrack. Some of the short tracks I feel like are still a little bit different and still trying to figure out exactly what we need, because every single one is a little bit different than the other.
“But I think we’re starting to get better and better with it, and figuring out how we should compare to other cars and how we should attack different racetracks. It gets better and better as it goes, and the more laps and the more races you get, the more it’s all going to come together.”
Making everything else gravy in an already satisfying debut season.