Notes of Interest
● After coming oh-so-close to his first top-10 finish of the season, 23-year-old Cole Custer and his No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) head to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for their first of back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series weekends in the Desert Southwest. Sunday’s 400-mile event on the 1.5-mile oval will be Custer’s 43rd career start in the series and his fourth at Las Vegas. The series will race at Phoenix Raceway the following Sunday, March 14.
● Custer, the reigning Cup Series Rookie of the Year, ran in the top-five for a majority of the final stage of last Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and was running eighth with two laps to go when a tire issue dropped him off the pace. He took the checkered flag with a disappointing 23rd-place finish. The native of Ladera Ranch, California, heads to Las Vegas 14th in the driver standings with 68 points, 71 markers behind leader Denny Hamlin. Still, he is 12 positions higher in the standings after the first three events than he was in his inaugural Cup Series season of 2020, when he was 26th. He went on to earn a berth in the NASCAR playoffs with his July 12 victory at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
● In his first three Cup Series starts at Las Vegas, Custer has a best start of 17th in last year’s February race and a best finish of 16th last September. Las Vegas was where Custer made his Cup Series debut in the March 2018 race, when he started 30th and finished 25th in the No. 54 Rick Ware Racing Ford.
● In five NASCAR Xfinity Series outings at Las Vegas from 2017 through 2019, all behind the wheel of the No. 00 SHR Ford, Custer started on the pole in each of the last three, and he posted top-10 finishes in each of the last four with a best of third in the September 2018 race. He also led a total of 54 laps in Xfinity Series competition at Las Vegas.
● In Custer’s lone career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series outing at Las Vegas, he started and finished third in the October 2016 race, driving the No. 00 entry for JR Motorsports.
● Season 1 of the new Netflix series “The Crew,” the NASCAR-themed comedy starring Kevin James as an old-school crew chief, debuted this month on the streaming channel, and Custer is one of three drivers who filmed cameo appearances for the show’s inaugural season. Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon are the others, and the cameo lineup also includes FOX NASCAR pit reporter Jamie Little. There are 10 episodes now available for streaming.
● Returning to Custer’s No. 41 Ford Mustang for SHR is team co-owner Gene Haas’ newest holding, Haas Tooling, which was launched as a way for CNC machinists to purchase high-quality cutting tools at great prices. Haas cutting tools are sold exclusively online at HaasTooling.com and shipped directly to end users. HaasTooling.com products became available nationally last July, and the cutting tools available for purchase at HaasTooling.com have proven to be even more important during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as CNC machines have become vital to producing personal protective equipment. Haas Automation, founded by Haas in 1983, is America’s leading builder of CNC machine tools. The company manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and rotary tables and indexers. All Haas products are constructed in the company’s 1.1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oxnard, California, and distributed through a worldwide network of Haas Factory Outlets.
Cole Custer, Driver of the No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
You’re headed to Las Vegas, which is one of those tracks where the surface has aged and it seems to be quite racy. How does that affect the complexion of a race there these days?
“Yeah, it’s huge. Whenever you see these tracks that are wearing out more and more, it just makes them racier and racier, in my opinion. We’re able to slip and slide around and you’re able to do more. You’re able to move around the track and you’re able to kind of find some things that are better than the guy next to you, so it’s something that’s really fun and I think it’s something that every single driver gets excited about when the pavement gets wore out.”
How does Las Vegas compare to other tracks that are worn?
“It’s a track that’s kind of transitioning into that field, I guess you’d say. It’s getting there. It’s starting to get a little more worn out but, also, the big thing there are the bumps. The surface might not be extremely worn, but they have huge bumps, so it does bring a huge challenge into how the driver is going to make it through the bumps and how the team is going to set the car up through it.”
How do you feel about your first three races this year?
“Right now, I think we’re honestly in a pretty good spot. I was happy with our runs at Daytona. We ran a lot of the race in the top-10. I think we just need to keep building off that. We had a good run going late in the race at Homestead. We were in the top-five for a long time and were two laps away from a top-10 finish when a tire started coming apart. That was disappointing, but if you can run in the top-10 and get stage points and not make the big mistakes, you’re going to find yourself in some pretty good spots and you’re going to find yourself right in the middle of the points battle to make the playoffs. I think it’s just a matter of taking it week by week and making sure we keep progressing, but I think we’re in a pretty good spot right now.”
We saw a couple of first-time Cup Series winners in the first two races, and then William Byron won his second career race last weekend at Homestead. How does that affect the playoff picture, in your mind?
“It’s definitely not ideal, but at the same time it’s probably too early to know how that is all going to work out. At this point, you just try and keep being consistent, keep trying to work up to it, and run in the top-10 and get stage points and try to get as many points as you can. It’s something where, halfway through the year and you’re in that spot, it’s where you don’t want to be, you’re right on the bubble, you might have to be more aggressive. But at this point it’s too early to tell. I feel like you just have to keep trying to be consistent.”
Is there a point in the regular season when you really have to start pacing yourself?
“I think, starting off the season, you’re just trying to make sure you don’t put yourself in a hole. That’s the biggest thing, at least from my standpoint. From there, you just try and build it and you try and get more and more confident, more comfortable with what’s going on, just because we don’t have the practice to work through a lot of things as a driver. So, limiting the big mistakes and kind of working into it is probably a smart idea. And then, once you get into the summer months, you’re trying to perfect it more and more and get more and more aggressive. It’s just a matter of working up to it. That’s the biggest thing.”