NASCAR: How a sudden downfall inadvertently created a champion

Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Was Cole Custer’s NASCAR Cup Series stint perhaps a bit underrated, given Stewart-Haas Racing’s clear decline over the last few seasons?

After three seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, three seasons which saw him advance to two Championship 4s and win a total of nine races, Cole Custer was promoted to the organization’s Cup Series team.

But after three seasons with the Cup Series team, he was demoted back to the Xfinity Series for 2023, with Ryan Preece replacing him behind the wheel of the No. 41 Ford.

Instead of being down and out about his demotion, the 25-year-old Ladera Ranch, California native responded in a big way.

At first, it looked as though he was truly down and out. With a top finish of ninth place in the season’s first six races, the doubters were having a field day. Custer was consistently finishing behind teammate Riley Herbst, who entered the 2023 season with zero wins in three-plus seasons with top-tier Xfinity Series programs.

But after that, Custer went on a run which saw him win twice to clinch a playoff spot, and just as he did in 2018 and 2019, he clinched a spot in the Championship 4.

And this time around, he didn’t finish in second place.

In his return season to the Xfinity Series, Cole Custer became a NASCAR champion.

While the talent gap between the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series is obvious, Custer’s title run begs an interesting question: was his Cup Series run a bit underrated?

I don’t think Stewart-Haas Racing were wrong to demote him. In fact, I think they would have been crazy not to. They needed to change something, and it was hard to argue against the idea that Custer, at that point, was the weakest link in the chain.

But look at Custer’s performance, in relation to Stewart-Haas Racing’s decline.

In 2020, when Stewart-Haas Racing led all teams with 10 wins, Custer won a race and was the team’s only race winner other than Kevin Harvick. He was also the only rookie to qualify for the playoffs — and the first to do so since 2016 — and won the Rookie of the Year Award because of it.

Since 2021, Stewart-Haas Racing have just four total wins, while from 2014 to 2020, they recorded five seasons with more than four wins. It was a rapid decline, to say the very least.

Custer performed poorly in both 2021 and 2022, tallying just five combined top 10 finishes, before losing his ride ahead of the 2023 season, which ended up being Stewart-Haas Racing’s first winless season since 2008.

For context, Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Cup Series win didn’t even come until 2009, so the 2023 season was nothing shy of disastrous.

Did Preece really perform much better than Custer would have in the No. 41 Ford this year? He scored just two top 10 finishes in his first season with the team, and without Chase Briscoe’s penalty, he would have been their last place finisher in the point standings.

So yes, Custer did struggle in the Cup Series. But can you really blame him? Stewart-Haas Racing, as a whole, struggled during his stint there. Perhaps it took a demotion — and subsequent success — to finally see that, believe it or not, he really isn’t a terrible driver.

The fact that he dropped back down to the Xfinity Series, got up to speed with two wins by the middle of the season, clinched a third straight (skipping 2020 to 2022) Championship 4 spot, and immediately won the title over a field that included multiple drivers confirmed in 2024 Cup Series lineups says a heck of a lot more than “oh, he won a minor league championship after not cutting it in the majors”.

Next. All-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. dark

Custer demonstrated a maturity well beyond his years in the 2023 season, and a skillset to match. While keeping him in the Xfinity Series for another season in 2024 was unquestionably Stewart-Haas Racing’s best move, he should be on the radar of other NASCAR teams throughout the Cup garage for a potential 2025 seat if he can keep up his success.