With Stewart-Haas Racing announcing that they will have an entry in the XFINITY Series next season, all eyes point to Cole Custer as the guy to drive the car.

Currently, Custer drives for JR Motorsports in his rookie campaign of the Camping World Truck Series with sponsorship from Haas Automation. His father, Joe Custer is the executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing and chief executive officer of the Haas F1 Team. 

Through 12 races this season, Custer sits 11th in the point standings, five points off the Chase cutoff, held by Cameron Hayley. With a fifth-place finish at Pocono, the No. 00 truck gained 20 points on the Chase bubble.

“We’ve definitely struggled,” Custer told Speedway Digest of his 2016 season. “We thought that we were going to be better this year. I think we are getting better and I think we will have a chance to get in the Chase.”

Custer has back-to-back top-10 finishes, increasing his total to five on the season, with a best finish of second at Iowa in mid-June. Leading three laps this season, the No. 00 truck is looking to regain its momentum that it had when they didn’t compete in a full season.

At age 16 Custer became the youngest winner in Truck Series history, in a dominating performance at New Hampshire, leading 148 of 200 laps in 2014. Last year, the team was victorious at Gateway leading 19 laps.

“A little bit of everything,” Custer said of what the team needs to improve on. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that you’re struggling on. We just need to get the whole thing rolling.”

Competing in a handful of XFINITY Series races this season, Custer has a little bit of extra racing on his hands. In three starts this season for JR Motorsports, he has a best finish of fourth at Charlotte, leading one lap.

Like many developing drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. puts his faith in the younger generation of drivers. This is the third season that the duo has worked together, making Custer look up to the 15-time Most Popular Driver as a role model.

“He’s had a really big impact on me,” Custer said of Earnhardt. “He’s a real fun guy to be around and he will help you from time-to-time. He’s been a big help to me.”

As the season progresses and Custer has four races to jump three positions in the standings, the series goes to two tracks that the team is looking forward to – Bristol and the road course of Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. In two career starts at Bristol the 18-year-old has a finish of eighth.

As far as the future goes, Custer isn’t sure what it holds. With his relationship with Gene Haas and Haas Automation, it’s possible that he drives full-time in the XFINITY Series next season.

“I’m not positive yet,” Custer said of his plans for next season. “We’ll see. Hopefully in the next few weeks or in the next month or so.”

A new era of NASCAR merchandising began on July 31, 2015. One year later and Fanatics has taken the fans of NASCAR by storm, introducing never before seen products, ultimately becoming part of the racing experience.

For years, fans were accustomed to the driver souvenir haulers, located around each and every race track. Many fans were sad to see their favorite drivers stand go away, but in the process adapted to Fanatics.

Chris Williams, Vice President of Trackside for Motorsports Authentic was one of the people in charge of setting up Fanatics. He had a vision of what he wanted to see at the track, and thought that this was the way of the future.

Williams has worked around for the sport for the past 30 years, and much like Fanatics celebrating it’s one year anniversary at Pocono Raceway, so is he. He once worked for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and then became the man in charge of the 30 plus souvenir haulers.

Much like the fans, getting used to the 1.5-acre tent that Fanatics is made up of has been a transition process for him over the season.

“Fanatics had a great vision of what they wanted to do with Trackside,” Williams said of the merchandise. “A lot of people don’t realize that we were digressing away from trailers because there were really only five guys that were making a profit and we were reducing trailers as they went. What was happening is we didn’t have a full assortment of drivers. We didn’t have any Truck drivers, hardly any XFINITY drivers at all and the lower tier drivers weren’t having any coverage at all from a Trackside standpoint.”

The support of the XFINITY Series drivers has said to gone up over 100 percent and the Truck Series over 150 percent, simply because prior to Fanatics, Motorsport Authentic didn’t carry much product for those two series.

Not only did the value of product increase, but so has the support from NASCAR. The way to purchase NASCAR merchandise at the race track is unlike any other sport. For that Fanatics and NASCAR have had a great relationship in year one.

“They [NASCAR] saw the numbers go down from the trailers and they knew they needed to keep the environment as part of the show,” Williams said of the support from NASCAR. “Shopping is a part of the excitement. We have the displays, interactions and hospitality, so they wanted something to be created that was going to be fan friendly. Going up to the trailers and waiting 40 minutes to be serviced was difficult.”

While shopping at Fanatics, fans will get in and out as quickly or as slowly as one wants. Each team has its own individual pod with hundreds of products for that organization. 15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has five pods dedicated to him, which is upward of 100 feet of merchandising.

Over the past year brands such as Columbia, New Era and even Under Armor through Hendrick Motorsports have joined the sport. Fanatics is always trying to produce more and are hopeful that even more companies will join in the next calendar year.

Last weekend at Indianapolis was the last track that saw the new setup. Though the tent has been to every track, the company is not afraid to change.

“A year into this, we’ve gone to all the race tracks, we’ve changed them all a few times,
 Williams said. “We’ve even changed in dimension a few times. We’ve changed even location from a couple of the historical places that we set with the trailers. But when they find us, the shopping has been very good. All of the transactions are doing extremely well, compared to last year. Though we might have seen a declining in some of the race attendance, our sales are pretty much flat or better, which tells us we are giving the right things to the fans.”

Going into the new process, Motorsports Authentic wasn’t sure how the process would go. Most of the people are the same from the trailers, but this is said to be a unique experience that sets NASCAR apart.

Many of the products, including die-cast cars, t-shirts and fans are all merchandise that fans can see up close and even feel. Before, fans had to ask to see the product after waiting in a long line just to be serviced.

For years, there were over 30 trailers touring the United States, going from track-to-track. Now, full-time employees are given days off in-between races, something that hasn’t been done before.  

“Presentation wise, it looks very good and fans love the presentation part of it,” Williams said. “I think from an expectation standpoint everyone seems happy. I know from a process standpoint it’s really good.”

With 26 full-time employees, Fanatics goes into each region looking for help. The company hires over 100 people per region to help set up the process as well work at the track. Over the last 52 weeks, the company has hired 12 new people, but that doesn’t fill more than 60 cash registers.

“We do a deal online through our HR department, where they can go out and say that they would like to work in Fanatics,” Williams said. “We have a training deal that we do for different colleges that come out that’s kind of like an internship as well as a placement of positions. So far it’s turned out really well. Everyone that has come on board except for one is still here and they really like the job. They like being mobile and dealing with the consumer, they thrive on getting it done in a certain amount of timeframe because there is such a limited window.”

As year two is now in the making, Fanatics is trying to get bigger and better. With goals of expanding based on each race track, the company knows that there will be challenges.

Unlike other sports, the drivers are constantly changing colors due to sponsorship. It’s something that some fans enjoy and other fans despise, but it’s all part of the game.

“I think what we need to do is get a little bit thinner and deeper in product because we didn’t know what to expect,” Williams said of one of his main goals. “We probably enlarged our inventory 30 to 35 percent more than we ever had it. Our sport is a little different than any other sport, so we kind of learn through that.”

 Income is based solely off the market. There will always be that die-hard fan that comes in at whatever track they go to, but the money varies by different markets.

It was announced earlier this week that Earnhardt was the top driver in merchandise sales. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was second on the list. Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch was third in product sold, rookie Chase Elliott was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

Since the beginning of the 2016 season at Daytona, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex, Jr. have seen their merchandise sales improve the most from last season.

15-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has struggled in 2016 compared to recent seasons. But after a second-place finish at Pocono Raceway, he is attempting to turn the No. 88 team in the right direction. 

Through 15 races this season, the No. 88 team has four second-place finishes, but a disappointing six top-10 efforts. In the same amount of time last season, Earnhardt had eight top 10s en route to tying a career-high 22 top-10 finishes.

Most recently, Earnhardt is coming off a 39th-place finish in Michigan, after getting caught up in a wreck with Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger.

Earnhardt and Ives combined for three victories in 2015 and by this point had already solidified themselves into the Chase with a win at Talladega. Currently, the team is sitting 30 points above the Chase cutoff in the 11th position.

“We started the year out great,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest regarding his season. “We were running really well and got a couple of second-place finishes, and it looked like we were on the brink of winning. This past month [May leading into June] has been kind of rough, but we will get it figured out.”

 Speed is a large part of the issue for the No. 88 car, according to Earnhardt. He had no top-10 finishes in the month of May runs at some of his best tracks, including Talladega, where he has been victorious six times. He has also had respectable runs at Kansas, Dover and Charlotte since he started working with Steve Letarte in 2011.

 His best finish over the course of those four races was 14th at Charlotte despite have a third-place effort in the Sprint All-Star Race while utilizing a possible aero package for 2017.  

 Earnhardt has been out front for 53 laps this season, leading laps in three of the 14 races, including the season-opening Daytona 500, the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and most recently at Pocono. 

 A beat of the upcoming racetracks on the schedule is where the No. 88 team has excelled in previous seasons. Earnhardt has multiple victories at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. He is the defending winner of the July race at Daytona and swept the two Pocono events in 2014. In 2012, he put an end to a 143-race winless streak at Michigan.

 “I think that we would like to gain some speed,” Earnhardt said. “There are some tracks coming up that I think we could run really well at, Pocono is one of them, Michigan, New Hampshire. There are some tracks coming up that we feel like we can improve, learn and get some good information.”

 Back when Letarte first took over as crew chief for Earnhardt, it took the duo about a year and a half to settle in.

 Over the next few weeks, the team is approaching the year and a half mark with Ives but overall, the statistics are stronger with Ives atop the pit box.

 In 50 races with Ives as crew chief, the duo has earned three victories, with 21 top-five finishes. In that same time span with Letarte, Earnhardt was winless, with nine top fives.

 “I think the crew chief is the leader,” Earnhardt stated. “He’s with the guys every day in the shop and at the racetrack. I lean on Greg to sort of be the leader and get these guys fired up.

 “I think he does a good job and we had a great year last year and started this year very good. We’ve had a little bit of a rough patch here, but you’re going to have some adversity and you’ll have to deal with that from time-to-time. I feel like he does a good job. As a member of the team, you don’t want to be a part of the problem, you want to be a part of the solution. You just have to try and keep everybody’s morale up and try not to make a bad situation worse.”

 Looking at Hendrick Motorsports as a whole in 2016, rookie Chase Elliott leads the team with 11 top-10 finishes. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to pull into Victory Lane, doing it twice at Atlanta and Fontana.

 “When you work with a different guy you learn what works for him and try to communicate with him,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not too challenging and it’s not extremely different than working with Steve. When you are hitting on all cylinders and you are running well, things come a lot easier.”

 It is an open door policy at HMS. When a driver needs help on race setup or even qualifying trim, the other teammates are there to help each other. The crew chiefs work closely together, though, the race team is split up into two shops on the team’s campus in Concord, N.C. In one shop, it’s the Nos. 48 team and No. 88 teams, with the other shop made up of the No. 5 team of Kasey Kahne and the No. 24 car.

 Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt and Johnson have worked extremely well together, according to Earnhardt. They are the two elder statesmen as of now on the winningest team in NASCAR history. Both drivers want to improve on that.

 One thing that Earnhardt has been very critical of this year is the way the team is qualifying. The No. 88 Chevrolet has started outside of the top 20 nine times in 2016. Throughout the entire 36-race season last year, he started outside of the top 20 eight times.

 “It makes racing difficult because you have to find a way to get to the front,” he said. “At times, it’s a lot fun to try and get to the front, but you certainly would like to make it easier on yourself with qualifying better. It’s been a big challenge trying to find the right balance for us and get speed. “

 Though Earnhardt has six solid finishes this season, the first stint of the race seems to be about rebounding for the team, attempting to drive the car halfway through the field.

 But the qualifying efforts have surprised Earnhardt for that reason.

 The car has raced well all season. Through some bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, he has three DNF’s, two coming at Daytona and Talladega, his two best racetracks with a combined 10 wins.

 “We always end up being one of the top five cars in lap times during the race,” Earnhardt elaborated. “We’re one of the fastest cars in the race, we just can’t do it in qualifying.”

 This is Earnhardt’s 18th season in the Cup Series, making him one of the longest tenured drivers in the sport’s top series. Matt Kenseth and he have the longest streak of full-time seasons.

 Earnhardt, 41, owns JR Motorsports, a NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series team. There is always the option after to race back down into the lower divisions of NASCAR, but admittedly so, he doesn’t want to race as long as his father did.

 “I want to run in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports as long as it helps the company,” Earnhardt said of his organization. “I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program. That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish.”

 2017 is a contract year for Earnhardt after previously signing a deal in 2011 to stick around with HMS. However, his future is still up in the air with no extension signed as of mid-2016.  

 Earnhardt would like to finish his Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports, which he has called home for the past eight years.

 “It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said prior to his last contract “Rick [Hendrick] and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

 With sponsorship from Nationwide, Axalta, Mountain Dew and TaxSlayer.com, it would be hard for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports. The companies have combined to fund his efforts for the entire year, led by Nationwide’s 21 events as a primary sponsor and 13 from Axalta after working with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

 “It’s something that we haven’t started to sit down and talk about,” Earnhardt said of his future. “We will see what Rick [Hendrick] wants to do with his direction and future is for the team. We will see if that lines up with what I want to do. I don’t think I will race as long as my dad did, but I have been having a lot of fun over the past couple of years.

 “I would hate to walk away from such a good opportunity prematurely, but when it comes down to it, Rick is the boss and what is future and direction of the team is important. I’m sure we will get talking about what we want to do past this contract in the next six months.”

Through 13 NASCAR XFINITY Series events in 2016, Alex Bowman has competed in three races. With nine races on his schedule out of the division’s 33, the Arizona native understands he needs to run well to once again compete full-time.

It wasn’t until the 10th race of the season at Dover that Bowman got a shot to go out and drive the No. 88 car for JR Motorsports, which had won two prior races this season at Daytona and Richmond.

At Dover, Bowman started from fifth position after finishing third in the first qualifying heat, won by JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier. During a long 71 lap green flag run that opened the event, the No. 88 car raced itself to the front to lead 33 laps en route to a third-place result.

 “It was a way to prove that I still belong here,” Bowman told Speedway Digest of his race at Dover. “We drove pass Erik [Jones] and took the lead for a while. It showed that I can contend for wins and it just means a lot that JRM took this chance on me. It let me prove that I deserve to be here.”

Rewind to Jan. 21, the last day of the NASCAR Media Tour, when Bowman found out through Twitter he would not be returning to Tommy Baldwin Racing, replaced by former JR Motorsports driver Regan Smith.

In mid-December, TBR announced it had picked up Bowman’s option 2016 season to drive the No. 7 car in the Cup Series, with Toy State renewing its sponsorship for 13 events in 2016 and 17 in 2017. He is now in the midst of building a foundation to build a long-term relationship with JR Motorsports, with the hope of working with the team to put together a full-time deal next year.

“Dale [Earnhardt, Jr., majority owner] and I have become really close friends, but everyone at JR Motorsports is cool to work with,” Bowman elaborated. “It’s a big family. It’s probably the most fun that I’ve had with a race team. It’s just a lot of good people and a lot of good equipment, and we bring fast cars to the racetrack every week.”

In his second race – the inaugural race at Pocono Raceway for the XFINITY Series – Bowman started the event in 10th and maintained position around the back half of the top 10 all day, finishing right where he started. Since the race was cut 47 laps short due to rain, there is no telling if the No. 88 team could have improved his car to finish higher in the field.

Bowman ran the full XFINITY Series schedule in 2013, minus Homestead for RAB Racing, owned by Robby Benton. He was released of his duties due to a lack of sponsorship. Blake Koch replaced him and finished 13th  after starting a career-high second.

Since then, he’s made a stop at BK Racing in 2014, competing for the Rookie of the Year award, along with the aforementioned Tommy Baldwin Racing last year.

Those two teams aren’t among NASCAR elites, with TBR going several races last year with blank cars.

“I just didn’t get chances to win races, but I think that everybody that gets to this point has pretty much won at everything that they have driven to get here,” Bowman said. “I think this year just helps me solidify on people’s minds that I deserve to be here.”

Winning the pole this past weekend in Michigan can’t hurt Bowman.  In single-car qualifying trials, the No. 88 Chevrolet was atop the leaderboard. He led the first 11 laps before finishing seventh after restarting second on the final restart with 33 laps remaining.

Bowman has seen worse things than not recording a victory in his NASCAR career. When he was in the Cup Series, he was struggling to finish in the top 30 with a best average finish of 31.6 in 2015. However, his best finish in a Cup Series race, 13th came in 2014 in a rain-shortened event at Daytona in July.

“I think I learned a lot from those two years,” he said. “They were definitely not wasted. I made the most of the situations that I was given. We elevated race teams and helped those teams grow, and at the same time, I learned a lot racing against Cup guys every week for the last two years.”

Bowman’s stop at BK Racing was his first full-time gig in the Cup Series. He had no sponsorship following the 2013 for a ride in the XFINITY Series. It was the No. 23 car or nothing for the 2014 season.

“Yes, but I didn’t have a choice,” Bowman said on if he was rushed to the Cup Series. “It was either that or I was going to sit on the couch because I didn’t have anything else. When I took that first Cup deal, it was either that or sit on the couch and I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot and am able to use that experience that I gained every time that I’m on the racetrack.”

While wishing that it might have been better if he was in a competitive XFINITY Series ride the last two years, Bowman has no regrets. At BK Racing, teamed with Dave Winston as crew chief, he had an average finish of 32.6 with six DNF’s.

Now, Bowman, 23, knows that every race he is in, is a chance to up his stock. If he wants to be in a competitive ride, he feels that winning is a must.

“Anything that can win, I will get in,” Bowman said on what he will drive. “As far as full-time stuff goes, I would love to pull some things together here with JRM. We are working really hard on trying to find partnerships to try and do that. Obviously, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to jump right back into the Cup Series. I want to stay where I can win races.”

In order to get a full-time deal, Bowman needs more days like he has experienced in his first three races behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Having nine races to prove himself on the track, he realizes that those could determine his racing future.

With help of Advance Auto Parts, Cessna and Vannoy Construction, it’s all about building relationships with sponsors.

“It’s really frustrating,” Bowman said of not knowing his future. “I’ve proved that I can contend for wins and I feel like I’m as good as anybody out there, but I don’t have a big sponsor to write a check. It is frustrating at times, but I’m very thankful to be where I’m at and hopefully, we will work something out.”

The No. 88 car currently sits second in the owner standings, seven points behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 team. Bowman’s main goal this season is to help Earnhardt and co-owners Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Rick Hendrick win the owner’s championship.

Bowman admits that JR Motorsports brings some of the fastest racecars to the track each week. But in order to win an XFINITY Series race, mistakes need to be at a minimum.

 “I think we’re working really hard to try and win this owners championship,” Bowman said. “There is a little pressure to do well for that, but beyond that, I just have to plug in and do my job. I just have to keep plugging in and doing my job the way that the other drivers did when they won their two races.”

Led by second year crew chief David Elenz, the No. 88 team has 12 top-10 finishes in 2016. The only race that the car finished outside of the top 10 was at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when Kevin Harvick finished 12th.

The XFINITY Series heads to Iowa this week, and so does Bowman in his third consecutive race driving for JR Motorsports.

Following that race, Bowman doesn’t have a ride until mid-July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – at least as of now. And though he doesn’t know his future, he knows that winning a race will solve a lot of hassles he has faced throughout his career.   

“With the right partnerships and everything if it works out the right way I would love to be here,” Bowman said of wanting to drive for JR Motorsports. “Everyone from JR Motorsports as well as from my side is working really hard to make it happen. I’m pretty content with where I’m at. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I just want to put something together here.”

Going nearly eight months without visiting Victory Lane, Joey Logano led 139 laps en route to a dominating performance on Sunday in Michigan.

With eight restarts on the afternoon, Logano controlled all but one, when he got passed by Chase Elliott. That was the only stint of the race in which the No. 22 Ford was not out front for a significant amount of laps, other than green flag pit stops.

Winning from the pole at Michigan is something that Logano has done in the past. In 2013, he started out front, finishing out front, in what was his first victory with Team Penske. The triumph came in Ford's backyard, as their headquarters are in the Detroit area and Adsel Ford II was in attendance for the victory. 

"Everyone did a good job at understanding what this package was going to do and put together a great racecar for me," Logano said of his victory. "It was a lot of fun racing with Chase [Elliott] there at the end and [Kyle] Larson. They had the restarts figured out down on the bottom pushing each other. We've been knocking on the door of a victory all season, but it's nice to get that win and lock ourselves into the Chase."

This is Team Penske's 99th career victory in the Sprint Cup Series and the third victory of 2016 for the organization. 

The 400-mile event was a bit unusual compared to Michigan standards. NASCAR brought a new aerodynamic package, hopeful of using this package in 2017. Most of the drivers throughout the field liked it, as like most races this season, it put the racing back in the drivers hands. 

Elliott recorded a career-best second-place finish at Michigan. The No. 24 car was out front for 35 circuits, after leading 51 laps last week in Pocono.

Logano got around Elliott on a restart with around 50 laps to go. He slid out of the groove and fell back to fourth. On the resuming restart, he pulled his Chevrolet back up to second, where he would remain the rest of the race. 

"You can't do dumb stuff to win these races," Elliott said post-race. "It was completely my fault. The guys gave me a fantastic car today. That one was on me."

Kyle Larson remained in the top five for the majority of the event in Michigan. Coming home third is the No. 42 team's second top-three finish in the past four races and now sits 19th in the championship standings, 23 points outside of the Chase cutoff.

"I'm not sure that there was anything I could have done there," Larson said of finishing third. "I was pretty tight there for two or three laps, sometimes for a full run. Staying out front the whole time was a big key. The Target Chevrolet was definitely a third or fourth-place car."

Brad Keselowski finished fourth at his hometown track and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five after starting in 29th. 

Carl Edwards finished sixth, while Tony Stewart came home seventh, after spending much of the day inside the top five. Austin Dillon rebounded after a possible left rear tire failure passed halfway to finish eighth. Jamie McMurray was ninth and Kurt Busch completed the top 10. 

Many of the big name drivers, including Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch all faced difficulties on Sunday.

On Lap 54, the No. 18 car was on fire. On the next restart, Chris Buescher got loose and up into Earnhardt who smacked the outside wall, finishing 39th. Hamlin brought out the final caution with under 10 laps to go when he cut down a left rear tire and spun to the inside wall. 

The Cup Series is off next week, but will resume in two weeks at the first road course of the season, Sonoma. The younger Busch is the defending winner at that event, which was his first of five victories in 2015.
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