Cole Custer burst into the NASCAR spotlight reserved for emerging drivers when he won seven Xfinity Series races and finished second for the title for the second straight year in 2019.
That success earned him a Cup Series trip in the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing. But less than three years later, he feels pressure to show the same potential in order to maintain that journey.
Cole Custer’s contract with Stewart-Haas Racing could end at the end of the 2022 season
NASCAR teams are not required to disclose the terms of the contract with the drivers. But a standard Cup Series deal runs for three years, and Custer is in his third year at the sport’s highest level. Unfortunately for him, it has been an afterthought for much of that time.
Custer won his first and only Cup Series race in his 20th career start when he moved from sixth to the lead on the final restart with three laps remaining in the race at Kentucky Speedway in July 2020.
He had just posted his first career top-five the week before at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and had two top-10s in his next three races, but that has been all the highlight of Custer’s Cup Series career.
His 2021 season was terrible, as he had two top-10 finishes, led just nine laps and finished on the lead lap in just 17 of the 36 races.
Part of that could be explained by the poor performance of SHR as a whole. Aric Almirola won the organization’s only race when he took the checkered flag at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but only managed one other top-five finish. Kevin Harvick had the other 10 SHR top 5 finishes, but failed to reach Victory Lane for the first time since 2009.
Stewart-Haas Racing has been better in early 2022
The same cannot be said for SHR this season. Almirola finished sixth or better in each of the first three races, Chase Briscoe won the first race of his career with a win at Phoenix Raceway in the fourth race of the year, and Harvick has three top-10s.
Custer has finished no better than 11th, and his average finishing position of 22.5 ranks 26th among full-time drivers.
The lack of speed in his SHR Ford cannot be excused this year. Coupled with repeated hot streaks from his teammates, Custer has started to qualify well. He has started third in two of the last three races and was 12th in the other.
A strong rating could be a sign of good results to come
The No. 41 team appears to have found speed for their car. Now the challenge is to turn those strong qualifying efforts into strong finishes. Custer has faded out of the top 20 in each of the last three events, though a runaway tire violation hampered his effort Saturday at Martinsville Speedway.
Strong qualifying performances often signal the beginning of a sea change for a racing team. With enough starts near the front, teams can usually get going and chain finishes much higher up the leaderboard.
For example, Erik Jones was 14th in the points standings in 2018 halfway through his first season in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. He had gone through a six-race streak beginning in May in which he had a top-15 finish but qualified 12th or higher in five of those events.
Jones then rattled off four top-seven finishes, including his first career win in the July race at Daytona International Speedway, and was 10th in the points standings at the end of the regular season.
The pressure is on Cole Custer to succeed this year and maintain his career.
Ironically, Jones could be one of Custer’s biggest threats to the No. 41 car. Riley Herbst drives the No. 98 SHR Xfinity Series car, but is yet to post a win in his three full-time seasons. In fact, Custer is the only driver to win an Xfinity race for Ford in 2022 when he won at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in the second event of the year for Green Light Racing.
Jones drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for PettyGMS Racing in the Cup Series and has run well for much of the year. He has four top-15 finishes in eight races and finished third at Auto Club Speedway in February, which was only the second top-five finish for the No. 43 car in a non-super speedway race since 2015.
Perhaps Custer will follow a similar path as Jones and become the next breakout star of the 2022 season. If he doesn’t, the rumors about his future will only get louder.
All stats courtesy of racing reference
RELATED: Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing face uncertainty over a Ukraine-driven F1 development