By Dustin Albino

For the last three years, Cole Custer‘s NASCAR tenure was a bit of a yo-yo. There were some highs and many lows. 

The highly touted prospect was the first of the Xfinity Series “big three” from 2019 to win at the Cup Series level as a rookie, pulling off a heroic overtime restart, going from sixth to the lead at Kentucky Speedway. The No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team didn‘t score another top-five finish over the next two and a half seasons. 

“A lot of ups and downs,” Custer told of his three-year Cup stint. “We won that race at Kentucky in my rookie year, and it was a pretty solid rookie year. There were things I could have done better at. If you don‘t look at yourself in the mirror, it‘s the wrong thing to do. 

“It was frustrating because there were times on the Cup side where I felt that we had good speed. It was just putting it all together and doing it consistently.”

Finishing races on a high note was an Achilles heel for Custer. He can recount more than 10 times from the 2022 season alone when he probably should have finished inside the top 10. Instead, he earned just three on the season, with the first one coming more than halfway through the campaign. 

“It can get frustrating when you feel like you could have had a decent run and you lose pretty much all of it,” Custer noted. “As racecar drivers, I think we‘re pretty good at resetting. You have to show up the next week and move on. That‘s what we do every week, so you can‘t mope around the whole week.”

During the back half of the 2022 season, Custer wasn‘t sure if he‘d return to the No. 41 car in 2023. Ahead of the final race at Phoenix, he said he would worry about his positioning after the race and that it‘s ultimately up to co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas

Stewart got his wish and Ryan Preece, who was a relief driver for Stewart-Haas Racing last year, was named the full-time driver of the No. 41 Ford for 2023. Custer found himself returning to Xfinity in the No. 00 car, the same series he won seven races in during the 2019 season. 

“I think some people could look at it and I could be ‘poor me, going back to the Xfinity Series,‘” Custer said. “For me, there‘s not really any ‘poor me‘ in it. I‘m excited to go out and compete for wins.

“There‘s always some emotion when you are told that you‘re not going to drive the Cup car anymore. At the end of the day, once you really think about it, I was excited about the thought of going to win races in the Xfinity Series.”

For the first time in his career, Custer is the established veteran on the team. He‘s paired with teammate Riley Herbst, who‘s entering his third season with SHR. This position is foreign to Custer, as he‘s now the team leader on the Xfinity side.

That‘s what his owners expect out of him, too. 

“Cole Custer has been a part of SHR since 2017 and we‘re glad to have him stay with us,” Stewart said in a November team release. “Cole‘s experience will be invaluable to Riley Herbst as he continues his development in the Xfinity Series.”

Custer is paired with first-year crew chief Jonathan Toney. The duo have known each other since 2003 — when Custer was 5 years old — as Toney is among the longest tenured employees at Stewart-Haas. He‘s been the lead engineer of SHR‘s Xfinity program since it began in 2017, and served as the lead engineer for Stewart‘s 2011 championship run. 

“We started going to the Ford simulator and talking racecars with one another back in November,” Toney said. “Our team was able to go to the Charlotte test at the end of January and work with Cole, which gives us a little head start going into the season. He and I have worked together a lot looking at past notes and making a plan going into 2023.”

Expectations for Custer are steep for the 2023 season. He does have recent success in the Xfinity Series, as he won one of his five starts with SS GreenLight Racing last year. 

Putting a win number out there is a tough task, knowing if he falls short of it, it would be a disappointment. But he expects to win early and often.

“It‘s no secret that we want to go out and win races and compete for a championship,” Custer said. “If we‘re not, it‘s a disappointment. At the end of the day, we can talk as much as we want about it, we have to go out and do it. We have a group that‘s really good about that. 

“The big thing about our group is, it‘s really a group with no egos. None of us have huge personalities. Everyone gets along really well and is pretty easy going.”

Despite not being at the Cup level in 2023, Toney rest assured that Custer remains in a good headspace heading into the 2023 season. 

“He is a very determined and competitive racecar driver,” Toney said. “If we all do our jobs to the best of our ability, then success will come and the future will take care of itself.”

Custer isn‘t ruling out a return to the Cup level one day. But he does believe he must show out in 2023. 

“You want to go out there and prove that you can still do it,” Custer said. “I want to go out and win races and consistently be competing for wins. 

“I‘m still pretty young and that‘s the pinnacle of our sport, so everybody wants to be a part of it. You just take it one step at a time and we have to go out there and make it happen this year is the biggest thing.”

Custer‘s first opportunity to capture a checkered flag is this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, where he‘s yet to score a top-10 finish at in six Xfinity starts.

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