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Cole Custer glad to not make any headlines in Cup debut

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One of the more surreal moments of Cole Custer‘s Cup debut came in the middle of Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Looking out the windshield of his No. 51 Ford, Custer bore down on none other than seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

“It was definitely kind of surreal racing against some of those guys out there,” Custer told NBC Sports two days after his 25th-place finish in the Pennzoil 400.

When Johnson made his Cup debut in October 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Custer was 3 years old.

Now 20, Custer is the latest member of NASCAR’s youth movement at the Cup level, albeit one race for now. Custer’s full-time job is driving Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 00 Ford in the Xfinity Series.

After starting 30th, Custer quickly found out his level of aggression in the lower series won’t cut it in the premier series.

Cole Custer pits during his Cup debut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

“The restarts are always pretty crazy so it’s hard to just jump right in there and be really aggressive when you don’t really know what the car’s going to be doing around 10 other cars,” Custer said. “Just getting used to that and what it felt like and everything. That was probably the biggest thing and really just trying to get used to the track bar adjuster and just really the whole weekend. I’ve never had to do a qualifying trim setup. Just the whole weekend in general was a new experience.”

It wasn’t his first time in a Cup car. Custer took part in a Jan. 31 – Feb. 1 organization test at the 1.5-mile track. Then he drove the No. 32 Ford owned by Go Fas Racing.

“I was definitely pretty nervous, just trying to get used to not really knowing what to expect,” Custer said. “You do all the preparation you can leading up to it, watching a lot of video and looking at data and stuff like that. But it still really isn’t enough because you still have to try and get a feel for the car and what it feels at the end of the straightaways and the corners and the motor. It’s just a lot to take in.”

On Sunday, he drove the No. 51 owned by Rick Ware Racing with support from SHR.

Custer attempted to approach the race like it was any other, despite the fact he was racing against drivers like Johnson for the first time on their level.

With his parents, sister, aunts and uncles present, Custer outran Daniel Suarez, rookie William Byron and AJ Allmendinger. Custer took the checkered flag in one piece while veterans Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray wrecked.

“For a first race I think it’s acceptable that we brought our car home,” Custer said. “Didn’t really have any scratches on it or anything.”

But it took until last November for Custer to be convinced he was worthy of competing in the Cup Series.

It came when he put together the most dominating performance of his young career in the Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After earning seven top 10s in the previous eight races, Custer led 182 of 200 laps and beat Sam Hornish Jr. by 15.4 seconds.

“When I was going into Xfinity last year I didn’t have the highest confidence or anything,” Custer said.

He attributed it to a lackluster final season in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016. He failed to win in 23 races and had five top fives. He had won one race in each of the previous two seasons as a part-time driver.

“By the end of (2017) I felt I had a decent amount of confidence and we won that race and that kind of makes you feel like you can kind of do it,” Custer said.

Custer believed a good day for his first outing would have been a top-20 finish. But he still managed to give Rick Ware Racing its best finish at a non-restrictor-plate track in 33 Cup starts (Justin Marks finished 12th in the Daytona 500).

Custer was surprised by one thing.

“It was actually not the hardest race in the world,” Custer said. “I thought it was going to be a lot harder. I thought the Xfinity race was actually a little harder than the Cup race, just because Saturday I was running around a lot more and had practices and qualifying and the race. So there was a lot more going on. The Cup race wasn’t too bad, I was surprised by that.”

As a native of Ladera Ranch, California, there was only one downside to his busy weekend.

He didn’t get the chance to enjoy his favorite fast food chain, In-N-Out Burger.

“I didn’t have any in Vegas because I was doing double duty, but I’m definitely going to get something next week in Fontana,” Custer said. “That’s always my No. 1 place to go.”

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NASCAR America: Steve Letarte ‘disappointed’ in NASCAR decision

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said he is “disappointed” by NASCAR’s announcement that it will not run the drafting package used in the All-Star Race again this season in Cup.

The move came after some car owners had expressed support for running the package again.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told NASCAR.com that the focus would be on “some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season. Everyone is aligned on doing what is best for the fans.”

Letarte expressed his disappointment with the decision on Thursday’s NASCAR America:

“I’m just disappointed. I’m disappointed in NASCAR’s decision not to run this aero package. I can’t remember a time in the sport recently where there has been so much excitement, so much banter about a change made like the one that was made at the All-Star Race. … I think the opportunity was completely missed to not run it again in 2018.

“Rarely does anyone have the chance where they know they have won over the court of public opinion, and I think that’s what happened at the All-Star Race. It’s not a package that is meant for every race track. You mentioned Indianapolis, the end of the regular season. This was just done a year ago with the Xfinity Series and that race was outstanding. I was in the booth for that race. It was one of the most memorable Indy races I remember watching, and I purely attribute that to the rules that NASCAR brought.

“Basically, I’m disappointed. I think they should have run the new package at Indianapolis. There’s always a great list of valid arguments of why you shouldn’t do anything, as I’m sure there was a great list of valid arguments why they didn’t do it, but it’s like that for any amount of change. I think at some point you have to go against the grain, against the arguments and you have to do what you think is best and, in my mind, that would have been running that new package this year.”

For more on the topic, check out the video above.

Ryan: NASCAR’s stunning decision on drafting package sends some conflicting messages

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It’s coming to save the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

It’s coming to solve the strung-out, single-file conundrum at 1.5-mile speedways!

It’s coming to strengthen the underdog teams and give them a better chance at winning!

Actually, it’s not coming at all (at least not this season).

Huh?

That was the feeling for many Thursday morning when NASCAR punted the All-Star Race aero and horsepower rules (or “drafting package”) – after a month of incessant hints and indications that it would be used at least twice more during the regular season (at Michigan International Speedway and Indy).

Track owners supported it. NASCAR officials supported it. Even some team owners supported it.

Drivers were less supportive.

The pushback from some high-profile stars isn’t what killed the drafting package, though.

This was a startling and abrupt about-face because NASCAR couldn’t secure the necessary buy-in from team owners, who essentially have veto power on major competition decisions such as this one because of the charter system implemented in 2016.

NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell said the critically acclaimed All-Star Race proved the drafting package was “something that could work … but in the end, we all felt like the best thing to do was to put some additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season.”

A NASCAR.com story described the hopes of using the drafting package again as a “Herculean undertaking” and “one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

Actually, rushing has produced some decent results before.

NASCAR announced a lower-downforce rules package barely a month ahead of a July 11, 2015 race at Kentucky Speedway, and the race was wildly successful.

This was less about a time crunch and more about cash flow.

Teams always can adapt to the rules put in front of them. But the best also will adapt by busting their budgets to optimize their cars, and that prompts a difficult question.

Are the changes worth it?

Even if the quality of racing (which is mostly subjective) improves, the majority of teams didn’t view the drafting package as a valid and wise investment, particularly if attendance remains flat (and if more tickets are sold, the tracks still reap the rewards without additional financial incentives for teams).

Millions were spent developing and optimizing competitive cars for a new inspection system this season.

Is it fair to say “too bad about all that R&D work” and change on the fly with the goal of “improving” the racing to build audience?

There also is an eye-of-the-beholder argument. Though Kevin Harvick won the All-Star Race and Kyle Busch led 19 laps and contended, would Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing approve a change to the rules that have allowed their champion drivers to dominate the 2018 season?

And as shown by the low-downforce package, whose luster faded after that smashing debut at Kentucky, the teams with the deepest pockets will burn money in wind tunnels to figure out the package and undermine its efficacy without compunction.

Privately, many team owners are tired of “fixing” the racing and want a greater emphasis on marketing and promoting NASCAR rather than trying to retrofit the competition (which has seemed a mostly pyrrhic exercise for the past decade).

So, is there any common ground?

Well …

“Everyone is aligned on doing what’s best for the fans,” O’Donnell said.

That might be true, but there’s an obvious lack of alignment on how to achieve what’s best for the fans.

For all the platitudes tossed around about the spirit of collaboration and cooperation with councils and committees of drivers, manufacturers and team owners, it’s clear the NASCAR industry isn’t on the same page with some critical topics – namely, on the usage of the drafting package.

Mixed messages aren’t new in NASCAR, a sanctioning body that once leaned on its stars to speak their minds while also fining them for having opinions.

But mixed messages color every part of the decision on the drafting package, which had become a daily topic of uplifting SiriusXM satellite radio discussion for gleeful fans.

–NASCAR spent the better part of the past month mulling the new rules — presumably because it wanted to upgrade its racing … but now it also will claim (according to O’Donnell in the NASCAR.com story) that “we’re really happy with the racing on track.”

–After the juxtaposition at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway of the drafting package at the All-Star Race (38 green-flag lead changes, up from zero last season) with the current rules a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 (which had single-digit lead changes for the second time in three years ), the latter package now will be used at two 1.5-mile tracks in the next three weeks.

–The Cup Series racing at Indianapolis, the track whose action is most frequently identified as needing major improvements, will remain the same for a Sept. 16 regular-season finale that might feature a record number of playoff spots up for grabs on points. A day earlier, the Xfinity Series race at the Brickyard will feature the same drafting package that was a hit last year on the 2.5-mile oval infamous for monotonous stock-car races with a lack of passing.

Does that seem hard to reconcile? That’s the problem with mixed messages.

The most consistent message delivered Thursday?

Say hello to the status quo for the rest of the 2018 season.

Maybe the news wasn’t so surprising after all.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Cup not using All-Star package again in 2018

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Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and leads into the debut episode of the Dale Jr Download at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts today’s NASCAR America from Stamford, Connecticut, and is joined by Steve Letarte from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

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The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.