Cole Custer was the top NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year contender Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and when the checkered flag was waving he had done recorded his first-ever top-10 finish with a ninth-place effort in the Fan Shield 500.
Custer’s great day on Sunday ended a miserable three-race stretch to start the season, which saw him DNF in Daytona and then finish 19th and 18th and Las Vegas and Auto Club Speedway — two tracks he had become quite good at over the past couple of seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
16th is where Custer rolled off the grid on Sunday, and despite starting the race a little too tight, the 22-year old Stewart-Haas Racing driver became a fixture inside the top-15.
When the caution came out at lap 58, this gave Custer, who hails from California, a chance to hit pit road and get some much-needed adjustments at the instruction of crew chief Mike Shiplett. Right after going back to green, the caution would come out immediately, which would give Custer a chance to snag some track position.
He would just miss out on Stage points in Stage 1, as he finished 12th.
Despite continual adjustments on the No. 41 Ford Mustang, Custer continued to suffer from a tight handling condition.
While Custer’s car was tight at the beginning of a run, it really came to life as the tires began to wear. By the end of Stage 2, Custer had worked his way to 10th and in doing so, he scored a Stage point.
In a wild and chaotic final Stage, which saw seven of the race’s 12 cautions fly, Custer drove more like a cagey veteran than a rookie and kept his nose clean. With 20-laps remaining, Custer was sitting just outside the top-10 and was ready to pounce.
He skillfully edged his way forward and came home ninth, the best of all rookie finishers so far in 2020. Custer didn’t sugarcoat how important the run was to his season.
“This was huge,” Custer said. “It is a huge boost in our step to have a really solid day and fast Mustang. We overcame obstacles all weekend and hopefully we can continue to carry that all through the year. I think we get better every single race, so it is just a matter of continuing that and doing that every single weekend.”
Custer not only had a great finish, but he catapulted from third to first in the overall 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year point standings and he jumped from 26th to 22nd in the 2020 Cup Series driver standings.
Custer seems to be finding some of his swagger that carried him through the last couple of seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. If he can string together a few more decent runs in the next few races, he may find himself in a position to take a firm hold over the Rookie of the Year standings.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.