For long-time fans, this is crushing news. Drivers they have grown accustomed to seeing on TV nearly every weekend from late February to the middle of November are leaving. In comes a new crop of drivers that fans are not as comfortable with or knowledgable about.
Picking a new favorite driver isn’t made on a whim for many fans. If you’re going to pledge your loyalty, one has to be all in.
And that’s why this could be one of the greatest times in the sport for young drivers.
The latter took place four races into Custer’s rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series. But ask him what his “Welcome to the Xfinity Series” moment was in his first 11 starts dating back to last year and the incident is downplayed as not being that big a deal.
“I guess you could say Phoenix a little bit,” Custer told NBC Sports. “I honestly don’t know. There hasn’t really been a huge moment where anything huge has happened.”
Two races later, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver achieved the biggest statistical moment of his short Xfinity career. He earned his first top five at Texas Motor Speedway, which surprised Custer given the 1.5-mile track’s recent repave and reconfiguration.
“I didn’t think I was the best at going to new tracks and new surfaces,” he said. “I think since we had such a great car and I adapted to the surface pretty good, we ended up having a fast car from the get go, really, and were able to have a solid day.”
It made him the second rookie to earn a top five this year after William Byron at Phoenix. The result came in the sixth race of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program.
The following Q&A had been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: Since you’re going to be at Bristol this week, if you were competing in the Cup race what would you choose as your introduction song?
Custer: That’s a tough one. I wish they did it for the Xfinity Series. You definitely have to think about it a lot before you choose. I don’t know, off the top of my head. Maybe something like 21 Pilots. I really like their music. … Maybe “Ride” by 21 Pilots or something.
NBC Sports: What’s the most emotional you’ve gotten about a sporting event that wasn’t auto racing?
Custer: Probably (Carolina) Panthers’ games back when they were terrible. I was probably a bigger Panther fan when they weren’t good than when they are good, kind of like right now. I would get really mad. It would ruin my whole day when they would lose.
NBC Sports: Why do you think you had stronger emotional reactions when they were horrible than when they were good and going to the Super Bowl.
Custer: I don’t know, its frustrating when people make mistakes. It’s frustrating losing.
NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?
Custer: Maybe right before qualifying, you’re pretty nervous just cause you have to lay down a fast lap in a short amount of time. That’s probably the most nerve-wracking.
NBC Sports: What’s the biggest difference for you going from JR Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing?
Custer: They’re both great organizations, have great people. Stewart-Haas has a lot of great people, a lot of great resources. I think they build a lot of fast cars. I think having Tony (Stewart) around and seeing him and how much he helps and cares, that’s pretty awesome and seeing all the racers here. It’s awesome to see.
NBC Sports: What’s been the biggest hurdle for the team in getting this season underway and this program started?
Custer: Pretty much just everything. We had to build a team from nothing. Having to get everything in place and build brand new cars and having to do all this stuff, it’s just not easy for anyone to do and let alone be fast when you go to the race track. I think we did a great job channeling all of it.
NBC Sports: You’ve gotten to race with Kevin Harvick a couple of times this year. What’s been a lesson you’ve learned from him that’s helped you on the track?
Custer: Probably just being patient during the races. He helps me every week in going to new race tracks and giving me advice on what his experiences have been there.
NBC Sports: What’s it been like getting to know your crew chief, Jeff Meendering, through these first few races?
Custer: It’s been great. He has a lot of background and a lot of knowledge. He’s a really smart guy and really level-headed. I think we go well together. He’s given me some really fast cars this year. I just have to learn how to bring things home clean and not making any huge mistakes during the race and I think we’ll have some good finishes. He’s definitely one of the best, though.
NBC Sports: How has your relationship with Tony Stewart grown over the last few years?
Custer: He’s just been awesome. He’s helped me so much in just communicating with my team and giving me advice and he’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. You see him on TV and he’s a little bit different than what he actually is. He’s really soft-spoken, a really nice guy and one of the best. It’s been awesome to work with him.
“NASCAR did a really good job of sharing with me that if I make a mistake like that again that the penalties would be very harsh,” Dillon said. “I love to race, and I don’t want to be on the sideline, ever.”
NASCAR told NBC Sports it does not comment on what drivers are told in hauler meetings.
Neither Dillon nor Custer were penalized for their episode last weekend at Phoenix Raceway that saw Dillon intentionally squeeze Custer into the wall at slow speed under caution in the Xfinity Series race.
Dillon retaliated against Custer after the rookie Stewart-Haas Racing driver got loose in Turn 1 on Lap 190 and ran up into Dillon, sending him into the outside wall and causing significant damage to his No. 2 car for Richard Childress Racing. After slowly leaving the scene of the accident, Dillon drove up the track as Custer came around him.
NASCAR parked Dillon for the final nine laps of the race and spoke to him and his crew chief following the event.
During a Friday press conference, Custer said his meeting with NASCAR and Dillon “went really good.
“We both have things that we wish we would have done different in the moment, but it is what it is and we’ll just try to move on from it.”
Custer had apologized on Twitter after the race and said Friday he did not feel any anxiety about the meeting with Dillon.
“I think we both felt like we got along pretty well and we weren’t on bad terms that much, so we talked a little bit about it and just said how we messed up,” Custer said. “If it’s a pretty bad situation, sometimes you’ll just sit there and say nothing, but it just depends.”
Custer said the meeting ended with the drivers shaking hands.
NASCAR has not issued any punishments the last two weeks after driver altercations. There were no penalties after Kyle Busch threw a punch at Joey Logano after the Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Conflict on and off the track has gained attention the past two weekends in the sport and how NASCAR responds will help set the tone for the garage the rest of the season.
Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing that subject and more in this week’s Bump & Run.
In the last two weeks, NASCAR did not penalize Kyle Busch and Joey Logano for an altercation on pit road, and a series official suggested this week that there might not be any additional penalties to Austin Dillon (who was parked by NASCAR) for slowly cutting across Cole Custer’s car and making contact after an incident between them in the Xfinity race. What do you make of NASCAR’s reaction to these incidents and the message it sends to the garage?
Kyle Petty: First, I will never condone the use of a race car or physical force in settling a perceived injustice. Having said that … I think NASCAR is in a little bit of a box they’ve put themselves in. We can go back to “boys have at it.’’ The stage races are just another level of that. Stage racing was designed to make every lap mean more, for drivers to race “harder” and to bring the intensity level and anticipation of the event to another level.
If that’s what you’re looking for, you can’t penalize the drivers when they react the way they do to the position the rules put them in. We’ve begged for emotion and personality from drivers, and when they give it to us there’s an outcry to penalize them. We can’t have it both ways, and the middle ground is confusing to fans and drivers alike. I guess it’s like that old saying “be careful what you wish for’’ because when you have it you don’t know what to do with it.
Dale Jarrett: I like the idea that nothing was done as far as the Kyle Busch and Joey Logano incident. This business is difficult, especially in a situation where something happened on the last lap of the race.It’s hard to expect a driver not to react in some way, shape or form. I’d rather Kyle Busch have a conversation and then if he felt it needed to go further … but he felt like he needed to talk in a different manner. I’m not opposed to that. I think you need to protect your ground and show your displeasure.
I’m not a fan even though I’ve been there and pretty much every driver has been there as far as a retaliation on the race track with the race car. I think we need to be discouraging that way more than we need to be discouraging drivers having conversations. We don’t need fights every weekend by any stretch of the imagination, but if they want to have discussions and something breaks out from there, I’m much more in favor of that than using the race cars.
Nate Ryan: The Busch-Logano reaction doesn’t surprise me. No harm was done (aside from the lone aggressor’s forehead), and I think it’s understood where the line is on drivers settling it between themselves. They have great latitude to approach each other after races, and as long as it doesn’t result in a broken jaw, there won’t be severe consequences for heated altercations between drivers (and subsequently their team members).
The Custer-Dillon situation was slightly more surprising as NASCAR officials don’t want drivers employing their cars as weapons of revenge, particularly under caution. But some punishment was meted out in parking Dillon for the race and summoning him for a meeting. That officials will meet with Custer and Dillon together in Southern California this weekend also negates the need for further action.
I think the message being sent is that NASCAR proactively is ensuring feuds don’t escalate to being uncontrollable but also is being careful to avoid the perception of micromanaging emotions.
Dustin Long: The days of NASCAR overseeing the drivers with the strictness of a convent school are over. That doesn’t mean that they’ll allow a driver to wreck another — as Matt Kenseth did to Joey Logano in 2015 — but for a sport that has an edgy sponsor and looks to gain the attention of more fans, slapping wrists with a ruler are long gone. The question is how far will officials go? When they react? Will it be an overreaction to get the garage back in line?
Kyle Petty: Yes. I believe the streak continues! Larson, Elliott, Harvick. The list of drivers who have been strong so far this year is diverse. Not the usual suspects! We know Michigan was Larson’s first win and California is a sister track. Chase will contend again and has been in position to win every race this season. Harvick is Harvick, any race, any time, anywhere he can win. I will say all I know for sure is Carl Edwards won’t win!
Dale Jarrett: Yes. I think the name that probably comes to mine and everybody else’s is Kyle Larson. He was in position to win every race we’ve had so far this year. Especially with that race track, he’s done well there and it’s his type of race track. I think these new rules with less amount of downforce are really only enhancing his driving abilities. I think he will have to outrun Chase Elliott to get the checkered flag.
Nate Ryan: Yes. Kyle Busch has this place sorted (three wins, including two of the past four races), and he drives well when motivated. Though “Everything Is Great,” it won’t diminish Busch’s drive to return to victory lane and take some smug satisfaction at reclaiming the spotlight for the right reason.
(P.S. I also reserve the right to change my mind for Sunday’s pre-race Staff Picks post on nbcsports.com/nascar.)
Dustin Long: Yes. After the millennials have finished second each of the first four races (Ryan Blaney at Daytona and Kyle Larson each of the past three weeks), one of them is due to win. That includes Chase Elliott, who has two top-five finishes this season.
Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.