FOX NASCAR’s designation as 2021 being the “Best Season Ever” could serve a secondary meaning, behind the”Most Unpredictable Season” ever.
With NASCAR revamping the Cup schedule for 2021, Cup Series drivers are eyeing new ways to prepare themselves to tackle new courses, such as Road America and Circuit Of The Americas (COTA) In Texas.
Enter Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer, who will jump behind the wheel of the No. 17 Production Alliance Group Mustang in partnership SS Greenlight and Rick Ware Racing.
“Obviously when we first started looking at running COTA (Circuit of the Americas) in the Xfinity Series, we were looking for another Ford team,” said Custer. “I made my NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2018 with Rick Ware Racing, so SS Greenlight with Rick Ware Racing made sense.”
The California driver’s reason for jumping back down to Xfinity is a pretty simple one – logging as many laps as possible before heading into a Cup Series debut at a brand-new venue for the sanctioning body.
“You know obviously with all the new tracks that NASCAR put into the schedule, you just want to get laps,” Custer told TobyChristie.com. “That’s kind of the old school way of thinking of it, you want to try and go out there and try and get as many laps as you can, and experience. Without practice right now because of COVID, limited practice means a lot to be able to run as much practice as you can with some of these tracks we’ve never been to before.”
With a majority of the 2021 Cup schedule not featuring any on-track practice or qualifying, it has become a greater challenge for teams to shakedown their cars to ensure a competitive car on Sunday. NASCAR will give all three touring series time to practice during the race weekend. Xfinity and Trucks get one session, 50-minutes each on Friday, May 21, while the Cup Series will get one 50-minute session on Saturday, prior to both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series race later that afternoon.
The Stewart-Haas driver hasn’t sat in an Xfinity Series Mustang since 2019, during his dominant seven-win season before graduating to the Cup Series and the No. 41 Mustang for SHR. The series has changed drastically over the past two seasons when it comes to competitors, and even the body styles with the Ford getting a facelift in 2020. Custer will face the likes of fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric, and road-course ace A.J. Allmendinger when he visits COTA, two drivers that are sure to be favorites to win the inaugural race for Xfinity.
As Custer explained, “I am definitely going to manage expectations, I think it’s a matter of mainly getting laps is the biggest thing for me in this race. I think if we can get all the laps in practice and in the race, it’s going to help me a lot in the Cup car. But overall, I want to go out there and get a top 10, I think that’s what everyone deserves with the amount of work being put into this car. I’d love to do it for Bobby, and Dale at Production Alliance Group. Hopefully, we can get a solid run out of it.”
While two different configurations were being analyzed by Speedway Motorsports Inc, the decision was made to utilize the long-form circuit, the identical layout to what Formula 1 races on. With a 20-turn, 3.41 mile layout, there isn’t any other track on the Cup schedule that matches what COTA has in store for the drivers. With no experience on the track, Custer has taken a hard look at data from other road courses on the schedule to begin crafting how he’ll attack the behemoth of a road course.
“The one you can try and compare to the most I think, is Road America,” said Custer. “It just has some really long straightaways and some really tight corners. You might be able to compare it to Sonoma a little bit, with the esses, with how they flow, and how you’re probably going to be fighting a good amount of drive in some of those tight corners. But overall, there is going to be nothing like it, it’s a really tough race track. There are so many corners, it is such a big track, and it’s going to be one of the hardest tracks to learn as a driver, and that’s the biggest thing as to why you’re trying to get as much seat time as you can.”
With the main goal being to get reps at a new venue before jumping into the Cup seat, it’ll be crucial for not only the 23-year-old but Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s no secret that the SHR Mustangs have struggled this season, with no clear answer as to why. Custer accounted for one win of Stewart-Haas Racing’s 10 in 2020, with Kevin Harvick bringing home nine checkered flags, and a top-eight points finish. Coming off the heels of Darlington, Custer and teammate Aric Almirola both finished 36th and 37th respectively thanks to two eerily similar wrecks.
— Cole Custer (@ColeCuster) May 9, 2021
The teams of SHR are in need of some serious improvement with the Playoffs inching closer and closer.
“I wouldn’t say we are happy for sure,” Custer explained. “From last year, I thought we were starting to build some momentum, I thought we were probably a top-15 team there at the end of the year, and we were hoping to build on that coming into this year. It’s definitely disappointing. NASCAR made some rule changes going into this year, and I think it definitely affected us a good amount.”
After Harvick brought home nine wins and 27 top-ten finishes in 2020, he was labeled as a favorite for the 2021 championship. Custer secured his first in at Kentucky and Clint Bowyer raced his way in via points, giving SHR three of four positions in the 2020 Playoffs. Thus far in 2021, only one SHR driver sits in the top-16 in points. The rough start is giving Stewart-Haas Racing more reason to comb through the data that correlated with strong performances, according to Custer.
One of the major reasons falls out of the team’s control with the lack of practice and qualifying due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it makes for a more interesting race strategy, the team isn’t rolling off the truck with what they expect, which is hindering the organization’s ability to perform. The two practices and a qualifying session help every team greatly when it comes to a setup for Sunday’s race.
“That just comes with unloading better,” explained Custer. “We’ve gotten the cars where we have been solid, it’s just a matter of starting the race better.”
The good news is, the issue at hand is not specific to one driver or one team – it’s across the board for the organization. The dip in performance has not hindered the relationship between Custer and his crew chief, Mike Shiplett.
“I think Mike is someone who can really keep the ship steering in the right direction,” said Custer. “I think he’s pretty calm and think he can look at the big picture on certain things and get us going right. He’s always been extremely supportive. I think that’s a big thing that makes him great, he’s a guy who can really keep you going in the right direction mentally with the cars. He’s been a huge part of the success that we’ve had.”
Shiplett and Custer linked up in 2019 during Custer’s final full-time Xfinity Series season, notching seven wins, six poles, and finishing second in the season standings. Shiplett joined SHR after spending time with Chip Ganassi Racing and John Hunter Nemechek in 2018.
With aggravation and concern likely growing, it’s crucial for a team to stick together. Custer and crew chief Mike Shiplett know this, and their relationship is being tested with both trying to deliver the best for the team.
Explained Custer,” It’s one of those things where everyone is working extremely hard, but it starts to become where you’re beating your head against a wall a little bit because you’re looking through all these notes, you think you have it figured out, and then you get to the race track and it’s not what you thought. It’s a matter of staying positive… It’s tough, I am not going to lie, when you expect to run in the top ten and you’re just not there, it’s tough. But it’s something that you need to keep focusing on the next week, and figure out what you can learn from the week prior, and apply that to the next one.”
Custer is confident that the 2021 season for his team and organization can be turned around. Looking a bit further down the line, the entire sport will be in a race to learn what is arguably one of the biggest changes to the sport in recent decades with the introduction of the Next Gen race car. Revealed on May 5th, Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota fully revealed their new cars set to hit the track in 2022. Custer has been one of the drivers that had the opportunity to help test the car with the sanctioning body in a private test at Dover International Speedway in August 2020.
It’ll be a big change for the sport, and the drivers will have much to learn when it comes to mastering a number of new features for the car.
“I think the biggest thing from the driver’s perspective would probably be the steering,” Custer explained. “It’s just a lot different of a feel with the rack in pinion steering compared to the steering box. But also, one of the biggest things I thought was how much you can slip the car and get away with driving it sideways”
With new tires, a new gearbox, and a new body on the car, Custer believes that saving the car from a spin or a loose condition might be more of a challenge compared to the current car. But that isn’t the part that excites Custer the most when it comes to getting behind the wheel of the final version of NASCAR’s vision.
Said Custer,”What’s cool as a driver, is the sequential shifting. I think that is going to be really cool on the road courses where you can just slam it into gear, and play around with it.”
The Next-Gen car will look to achieve NASCAR’s goal to put the “stock” back in “stock car racing” with increased manufacturer identity, and better styling to what fans can buy in the showroom.
With the aforementioned gearbox, the days of the classic “H” pattern are drawing to a close in NASCAR racing. With a brand new sequential style, and the shifter only moving forward and backward, it’ll become one of the biggest learning curves for drivers to learn. Fans have already gotten their own taste of it, thanks to iRacing and their surprise release of the Next Gen cars on their platform following the Pro Invitational race at Darlington just hours after the official reveal.
“I think the biggest place you’ll see it (the learning curve) show up could be the ovals honestly and pit road,” Custer said. “Like Darlington in the Pro Invitational race, we were shifting down to fourth gear in three and four to get the RPMs up and get a better exit. You might see at some of these ovals, we will be shifting more because you have another gear to play with. It’s easier to shift, you’re just hitting the handle.”
With NASCAR making plenty of changes in 2022, one major topic that has been a heated debate among fans has been the number placement. With rumors of the number sliding back as they did in the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race, Custer prefers it the old-school, more traditional way.
“I’ve always been the guy that likes them where they are right now,” said Custer. “I think it’s ugly when you move them forward or backward. I don’t know if that is just because that is what I am used to and that’s just how it has been for a long time. But I think it should just stay how it is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’ve done it for a long time, and it looks good.”
However, those aspirations and thoughts of the Next Gen cars can be saved for 2022. With Custer sitting outside the top-20 in points, the team and driver are laser-focused on their intentions of making the 2021 Playoffs for the second consecutive year.
“There is still time,” Custer said. “It’s still a possibility right now to point your way in. We need to fight for every stage point we can get. As you get closer and closer, you might have to get into a must-win situation and push your luck a little bit more.
With his lone Cup Series win coming at Kentucky in 2020, he’ll have to find a new place to nab win No. 2 after the 1.5-mile track failed to make the cut for the new schedule. With more road courses on the schedule this year leading of with Circuit Of The Americas in a few weeks, Custer eyes them to be a strong suit for his driving style.
“We’ve been solid at the road courses,” Custer explained. “It’s just a matter of getting ourselves in a good spot and have things fall our way, we can maybe find ourselves in a good spot to win one.”
Driver No. 41 will become Driver No. 17 for one race when he makes his on-track debut at COTA on Saturday, May 22 on FOX Sports 1 and the FOX Sports app.