After three full seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series driving for Stewart-Haas Racing where he produced very mediocre results, Cole Custer found himself still with that same organization at the beginning of the 2023 campaign but back in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. That move for the 25-year-old driver proved to be a beneficial one as he scored three victories, including the season finale at Phoenix Raceway, which netted him his first NXS championship.
With that immediate success upon his return to the Xfinity Series, where he has earned a total of 13 career wins, one has to wonder why the poor showing at the top level. He did win one race there during his first full season when he had an amazing late race restart at Kentucky Speedway then outran the pack back to the checkered flag. After that, however, there wasn’t much to get excited about while in the driver’s seat of the No. 41 Ford.
So then came the ‘demotion’ back to NASCAR’s second series. Custer was suddenly faced with the decision of whether he would go into the 2023 season with a bad attitude or to look at this as a new opportunity for growth.
“Yeah, it means the world,” Custer said following his win in Phoenix. “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. To come down here and still have people believe in you, work with J.T.(Jonathan Toney, crew chief) and really grind it out.”
Instead of falling into despair, Custer and his crew worked on improving each week.
“We really didn’t start out the year very good,” he added. “We came here(Phoenix) the first race and we sucked. We ran horrible. To come back here and really just bring a bullet and everything that we’ve learned throughout the year and communicated, I probably asked J.T. 10,000 questions this year, and he’s truly looked into every single one. I think we both care so much about what we do and being able to bring a fast car to the racetrack, and I just can’t thank him enough for believing in me.”
An example of following this path back to the lower ranks then returning to the top could be that of John Hunter Nemechek. That driver got the chance to race in the Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports at an early age(23) and it didn’t work out. He returned to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series then the NASCAR Xfinity Series where he regrouped, won races, and contended for championships. Now he is set to return to the Cup Series next season with Legacy Motor Club.
“When you’re younger, you’re just trying to figure it all out,” Custer explained. “But once you get older, it’s trying to figure out those little areas where you’re missing it a little bit. I think having this year where you get knocked down a little bit and you’re able to sit back and really realize what you need to do better. I think I tried to improve all those things this year, trying to work with my team and really get what we needed in the cars, and you’ve just got to keep working at it.”
So back to the question posed in the title of this piece. Considering how poorly the entire SHR organization has performed over the past several seasons, with the exception of Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team, it doesn’t quite seem fair to hold Custer’s initial lackluster run in the NASCAR Cup Series against him.
It would be easy to say that he had his chance and it didn’t work out so let someone else have a go at it. And until the SHR organization shows improvement at the top level, one has to wonder if this young driver wouldn’t be better off to just continue in the Xfinity Series until the right opportunity comes along. Is it better to win at a lower level or run mid-pack at the top level?
The SHR No. 10 car does not have a confirmed driver yet for 2024 following the retirement of Aric Almirola, but for now, it appears as if Custer will remain in the No. 00 in the Xfinity Series.
But all of this speculation has to be tempered with the reality that driver moves are almost always determined by finances and sponsorships so Custer’s future will dependent on more than simply whether or not he is deserving of a second shot. It will depend on who is paying the bills for that chance.
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