NASCAR’s Cole Custer has some unfinished business.
Custer, one of the sport’s rising wunderkinds, came excruciatingly close to winning the Xfinity series championship last year. He led a race-high 95 laps, only to finish second to Tyler Reddick in the winner-take-all championship finale at Homestead.
Custer, 21, built on that experience this season by winning seven races, tied for the most in the Xfinity series, to go with a series-most six poles. He finds himself second in the Xfinity standings heading into Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway, the first of three Round of 8 races that will determine the Championship Four at Homestead.
“To come up second last year was a little frustrating,” said Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “It makes me hungry. Our season comes down to these next four races.
“We’ve had a great year, obviously, with a lot of wins, so it’s a matter of every single weekend, we can be the team to beat. It’s just a matter of our hitting our marks right and not making any mistakes. There’s no reason we can’t do that the rest of the year, too.”
Custer, whose nickname in the world of social media is “Cold Custard,” won just one race last season, and he attributes his improvement to added experience as well as the addition of veteran crew chief Mike Shiplett.
“It’s my third year in the series,” he said, “so I have a better understanding of what I want in the car. Mike Shiplett has brought a lot of experience to our team. He knows what he’s looking for throughout the weekend in the car, and how it’s going to change with the track and everything. So it’s all come together this year.”
Being one of the youngest drivers on the track has never been a problem for Custer, whose father, Joe, is a top executive with Stewart-Haas Racing.
In 2014, Custer became the youngest race winner in NASCAR national series history when he won the Camping World Trucks Series race at New Hampshire at 16 years, 7 months, 28 days. Earlier that season, he had become the youngest pole winner in national touring series history at the trucks race in St. Louis
And in 2015, Custer, at 17, became the youngest superspeedway winner in ARCA series history at Pocono (Pa.), in just his third ARCA start.
“I know I’m a way better race car driver than I was five years ago,” Custer said. “Sometimes you can get thrust into situations where you’re too young and not ready, but it has worked out.”
Little wonder, there’s plenty of speculation that Custer is being groomed for a Monster Energy Series Cup ride next year in place of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 car of Daniel Suarez, who does not have a contract for 2020.
Custer believes he’s ready for the next step, whenever it may occur.
“Whenever I’ve competed with the Cup guys on the Xfinity level, we’re competitive or I have beaten them, so there’s no reason I couldn’t do it,” said Custer, who won at Dover in his last start, the 100th of his Xfinity career. ”There’s always a learning curve when you move up, so it’s never going to be easy, but it’s possible I can do it.
“Right now, you just focus on what you’re doing at the moment. If you do things like win races, it usually takes care of itself. As a driver, you don’t worry about (the speculation). You just try to worry about what’s going on at the racetrack.”
Custer has not had much success in two previous Xfinity starts at Kansas, finishing 19th in 2017 and 26th in 2018, though he was seventh in the trucks series in 2016. But he’s won at Chicago and Kentucky this season, two similar 1.5-mile tracks to Kansas, giving him confidence for Saturday.
“Our 1.5-mile stuff has been really good this year,” Custer said. “I think we’re going to be fast. We just have to do everything right when we get there. “
Clint Bowyer of Emporia will return home to Kansas Speedway this weekend with a contract extension. Stewart-Haas Racing announced Bowyer will continue driving the No. 14 Ford Mustang in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020. Bowyer, 40, has been with SHR since 2017 and his original contract, also announced the weekend of a race at Kansas Speedway, was to expire at the end of this season.