Rookie of the year Cole Custer reflects on first Cup Series season

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Being a rookie at NASCAR’s highest level is never easy, but Cole Custer faced some unique obstacles in his first season.

Both he and his fellow Cup Series freshmen navigated their debuts as the sport carried out its 2020 schedule during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

With no testing, as well as the elimination of almost all practice and qualifying sessions after the sport resumed competition in May, the rookies largely had to learn on the fly.

In the end, it was Custer at the head of the class. The 22-year-old earned rookie of the year honors and his first Cup Series victory at Kentucky.

“It definitely had a lot of ups and downs,” Custer said on a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “I think with any rookie year, it’s like that. But this year was probably to the extreme. Not having practice, not having testing, not having qualifying. It definitely wasn’t easier being a rookie. But I think we all made the best out of it, and we all made a lot of progression throughout the year.

“From our standpoint, to have a race win, to make the playoffs, I think we can call it a success. Did we want to run better for a long time? Sure. But I think we definitely made some huge strides in making more consistent runs. I think it’s a matter of taking it to the next level, to be consistently into the next group of cars.”

While Custer didn’t have as much on-track time to acclimate to the Cup level, he had the fortune of having Stewart-Haas Racing veterans Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola as his teammates.

Throughout the season, Custer made sure to pick their brains, especially Harvick’s. But he didn’t want to lean on them too much.

“To be able to have that kind of resources around you to bounce ideas off of and see what they’re thinking going into a weekend, it’s invaluable,” he said. “At the same time, you have to figure out your own way a little bit.

“Things that work for other guys may not work for you. You’ve got to really use your resources and talk to people and ask questions, and then also figure out your own path of what’s gonna work for you.”

Next season, some of that veteran knowledge will be missing from the SHR garage. Bowyer, a 10-time race winner in Cup, is making the transition to the broadcast booth.

Chase Briscoe, a 25-year-old who led the Xfinity Series this past season with nine wins, will take over Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford.

Custer said he was “really excited” to have Briscoe, a good friend of his, join him at the Cup level. He also is glad to have a second year with the current Cup package ahead of the Next Gen car’s rescheduled debut for 2022.

Altogether, he’s eager to build upon a season that, for all its curveballs, will be one he looks back on fondly.

“You’ve gotta take your little wins and make sure you’re still working in the right direction to get better,” Custer said. “I know we have a lot of things where we can get better.

“Honestly, I wish the season started next week, so we can get going again.”