By Dustin Albino

When Stewart-Haas Racing announced prior to the 2023 season that Cole Custer would return to the Xfinity Series following a bumpy three-year stint in the Cup Series, high expectations were set.

Custer‘s foray back into the series, primarily competing against new competitors, didn‘t start off well. He dominated the second race of the season in California, but a flat tire in the final stage kept him out of Victory Lane.

While the No. 00 car returned to the series, the team was new. Jonathan Toney, who has known Custer since he was an infant and worked at SHR for two decades in the engineering department, was leading a team for the first time in his career.

“Just the different responsibilities,” Toney said of the biggest adjustments as a crew chief. “Working as a race engineer, you‘re focused on your part. I was more of a chassis guy and understood the suspension components. To jump into the crew chiefing role, about two or three weeks into it, I started worrying about a lot of things that I didn‘t used to think about.”

The speed was evident. Custer won two poles in the opening eight races of the season. After scoring the No. 00 team‘s first top-five finish at Richmond, they went on a run of 11 consecutive top 10s, spanning practically four months. Included were a pair of road course victories at Portland and the inaugural Chicago Street Race.

Custer lurked throughout the remainder of the regular season, finishing fourth in the regular season championship.

“I knew going into the playoffs that things were starting to come together,” Custer said. “I don‘t know that the results were quite showing it yet, but you could feel that we were going to be able to bring some fast cars to the playoffs.”

Custer‘s playoffs began with four finishes of sixth or better. He led a race-high 114 laps at Homestead, but hit the wall during the final stage and needed to pit. The No. 00 team had a costly penalty when Toney was retrieving the tires himself and stepped over the wall.

That led to an integral conversation between driver and crew chief.

“At the airport that night, I called him, and we reassured each other that we both believed in one another and believed in the whole team,” Toney added.

Getting caught up in the final-lap melee at Martinsville, Custer barraged his way into the Championship 4 in reverse, quite literally on fire. That second chance sparked new life into the No. 00 team, where he commanded the championship race, leading just shy of half the race. It all came down to a final restart, however, with the final four drivers occupying the front two rows.

“It always comes down to the jump for how that restart plays out on the front row,” Custer said. “I felt like the resin was starting to come in on the top, so I picked the top and thought I‘d be able to go down into Turn 1, use it, and come off the corner better. The thing that you take the risk of is somebody getting to your outside or putting you three wide or getting a better jump than you.”

Custer indeed got put three-wide, but nailed the center of the corner, getting a good launch off corner exit catapulting him to the lead. The rest was history.

The No. 00 team wanted to win more than three races in 2023. But Custer believed the elevated competition panned out in the long run.

“I think it was good that it was tough,” Custer said. “It taught us how to make things better throughout the year, how to work with your team to get things to where we want them to be. I think that made us all grow into better racers and learn how to fix problems.”

The offseason was more relaxed this season for both Custer and Toney than in recent years. Custer has represented NASCAR at various sporting events, highlighted by promoting Daytona at a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game. There have been a few changes to the No. 00 team, internally, though the bulk of the same team members are returning.

Toney, a massive college football fan, has taken notes on leadership from Clemson head coach Dabo Sweeney, who has had a colossal amount of success in the last decade. Sweeney is used to constant turnover within a team. Toney also believes Custer has upped his leadership skills in 2023, becoming a “Kevin Harvick-type leader.”

With a stacked field returning to the Xfinity Series in 2024, Custer knows it‘s going to be a tall task to repeat as champion. But he felt the need to prove himself last year — and he did just that.

“I think for the most part, people were fairly down on me with how the whole Cup deal went,” Custer said. “Being able to go out there and prove that I can improve on what my Xfinity tenure was the last time — I never won a championship the first time — and now being able to win a championship puts you in a different category. That‘s something they can‘t take away from you and it proves to myself that, if the situation is right, I feel like I can go out and win races.”

Custer namedropped Allgaier and Chandler Smith, who made the move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2024 season, as drivers who he believes will be his toughest competition in 2024. The goal is the same, though.

“With how we ended the year, we had a lot of speed at a lot of different racetracks,” Custer noted. “For us, it‘s how do we go and win a lot of races? Last year, we built up throughout the year. Now it‘s about how can we be the standard of the series and compete for wins every weekend?”

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