Cole Custer is in a position that likely makes him the envy of many of his fellow young drivers – not to mention a lot of fans who dream about being race car drivers.
Custer, who turned 19 on Monday, is essentially having a brand new team being built around him. He’s moved up from the Camping World Truck Series (finished 10th last season) to a full-time Xfinity Series ride in 2017.
What’s more, it’s the first time Stewart-Haas Racing has built an Xfinity team since its formation. While Custer’s father, Joe, is former general manager at SHR (he’s now in a similar position with the organization’s Formula One team), this isn’t a case of nepotism.
No, the younger Custer has earned his way into an Xfinity ride with his talent, and it just so happens that it’s with the same team his father is an executive in.
Custer earned two wins, nine top-fives, 24 top-10s and five poles in 42 Truck races over the last three seasons.
He also made five scattered Xfinity starts in 2016, earning one top-five and a pair of top-10 showings.
But now in 2017, Custer moves up to NASCAR’s junior league – comparable to Minor League Baseball’s highest level, Triple-A.
While such a move may intimidate or be heady for another 19-year-old, it’s not for Custer. He’s been around racing his whole life and is ready to step up to the next level.
Even though he admits there will be some things to get used to, he’s up for the challenge. And with a new team that has a lot of experience among its members, Custer is cool, collected and, most importantly, confident.
“Coming from the Truck Series, it’s a new competition level,” he said Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “I’m going to have to step up a little bit and it’s going to be a different challenge, but I think we can do it and we have a great team.
Custer is so confident in his own skill and his team’s ability that he’s already upgraded his expectations for the season, not fearful to boldly predict that if everything goes right, the new first-year team could wind up winning the Xfinity Series championship.
“I think so,” Custer said. “We have some great people that are smart and capable enough to do it. “At the start of the year, my expectations are a little bit lower, like just being in the top-10. But from what I’ve seen in the off-season, we have some awesome people that will make some fast cars and I think we’ll have a shot at it.”
Admittedly, there have been growing pains within the new team. While some members are SHR mainstays, there are also several new members to the organization. Trying to get them all to gel and mold together has been a challenge at times.
“It’s definitely been tough,” Custer said. “Our guys are working extremely hard right now, getting cars together. I can’t stress enough how hard they’re working.
“You’re creating a fab shop that never hung Xfinity bodies before. You learn how to do that and everything else that goes with it. It’s not easy but we have some awesome people that are really smart and that are going to get it together, so I think we’re going to have a strong team.”
While Custer has a literal luxury of having the minds of several drivers to draw from – including team co-owner Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick – it’s Kevin Harvick that Custer is leaning upon and trying to learn the most from.
“I’ve related to him more since he runs a lot of Truck and Xfinity races, so he can help with that,” Custer said. “He’s kind of my go-to guy right now, but there’s a lot of great drivers at Stewart-Haas, so if I get a little information from any of them, I think that would be a great thing.”