NASCAR: How Cole Custer aims to build on rookie success

Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Cole Custer is looking to build on the success he had in his first season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver last year with Stewart-Haas Racing.

One year into his NASCAR Cup Series career, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer is already a race winner, and he has secured the award that you can only win once: Rookie of the Year.

Custer won in a thrilling finish at Kentucky Speedway last July to secure himself a playoff spot, and while he failed to make it past the round of 16, he knows that what he did in his rookie season gives him plenty to build on as he moves into year number two.

He became the first rookie to qualify for the playoffs since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher did so in the 2016 season, and he became the first rookie winner since Buescher won a rain-shortened race at Pocono Raceway that year.

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The 23-year-old Ladera Ranch, California native is no longer the new kid in the sport, or even within his own team, thanks to Stewart-Haas Racing’s promotion of Chase Briscoe from their Xfinity Series team to their Cup Series team, a promotion which Custer experienced last year.

“It’s nice to have a little bit of seniority, I guess,” Custer said in a preseason Q&A session hosted by Panini America, one of his partners. “It’s just a lot nicer to have a lot of notes now that we can look back on from last year. I just have a lot more experience going into this year, and knowing what to expect when I get to the race track. It’s just going to help so much with that. Also being able to know the guys for a whole year and being able to know the guys in the shop, so it just helps everything just be more relaxed and you’re able to kind of focus on the little things more.”

He finished last season with two top five finishes, including the win, and five additional top 10 finishes. But those two top five finishes came in back-to-back races, and four of his seven top 10 finishes came in a five-race span, so the key for him will be consistency.

“I think for us, you just take it one step at a time, is the biggest thing,” he said. “But I think if we can get into the top eight or so, I think that would be a good year. But I think the biggest thing is we have to just start out being more consistent in the top 10.”

He admitted that his goal is still to win the 2021 championship.

“It’ll be nice to win the whole thing because then I’ll get my picture on the box of Panini cards that you open up!”

With the schedule changes that NASCAR introduced to the Cup Series ahead of the 2021 season, Custer will be focusing a lot more on his road course racing skills throughout the year ahead. The 36-race schedule features seven road course races. His rookie season featured only two.

“The road courses are going to be important this year, because obviously we’re running a lot more of them this year with what they’ve added to the schedule,” he said. “So we really want to kind of hone in on the road courses and make sure that we’re getting everything we can there.”

Knowing what he knows now following his rookie season, however, he also admitted that there is room for growth on the short tracks and the intermediate tracks.

“But also I think we have a little bit of room to grow on the short tracks and the intermediates also,” he said. “So it’s just a matter of last year, I feel like we could run in the top 10 and we could compete for wins when we got everything right. We just need to do it more consistently week in and week out.”

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The 2021 season is scheduled to get underway this Sunday, February 14 with the 63rd annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, which is set to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET. Front row qualifying for this race is set to take this evening, and the Bluegreen Vacations Duels to set the starting lineup for the race tomorrow evening. Both qualifying sessions are set to be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET.