Stewart impressed with Custer’s 2017 performance

Russell LaBounty/NKPPhoto

By Caleb Whisler, Staff Writer

Going into the 2017 NASCAR season, Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) was in a transition of moving from Chevrolet to Ford but they were also in the process of adding a NASCAR XFINITY Series (NXS) team with Cole Custer, a 19 year old from Ladera Ranch, CA, and Jeff Meendering as crew chief.

While preparing for the manufacturer shift, SHR announced in September of 2016 that Custer would move from running a full-time schedule with JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) to run full-time in NXS in 2017 with SHR. The program was a success in the first year as the organization competed in the NXS Playoffs and won the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If anyone who has followed Tony Stewart’s career as a car owner at SHR, there is a realization that he tends to not let the guys at the shop have an offseason. Going into the 2017 was no different for the organization. Luckily, the men and women at the shop of SHR have had an “easier” offseason, to SHR standards.

“This winter everybody is going to have a little more casual winter getting prepared for next year. We are not throwing any major curve balls at them. I think everyone is kinda looking forward to that and having a little easier off-season than what we have had. I think we have given them in the past three out of five years,” said Stewart.

Joe Custer, Cole’s father, is an executive at SHR. Stewart remembers the first time he met Cole and how shy he was to meet him during the first couple visits.

“I’ll be honest, when I met Joe and the first time he brought Cole to the shop when I was there around the same time that we were there together, I think the first probably — I don’t know, I don’t even think the first three or four times he came to the shop he even looked at me, said Stewart. “I think he looked at the floor the whole time, and was about probably the eighth or tenth time that he finally spoke to me, and I’m like, wow, you do talk.”

During his two part-time seasons and one full-time season in NCWTS, Custer posted two wins, nine top-fives, 24 top-tens and five poles. However, moving from NCWTS to NXS is a transition for any driver. Stewart believed that Custer and the No. 00 Ford team were consistent beginning at Daytona in February but needed to put the whole day together.

“I think this year in particular — I mean, we knew he was good last year in the truck, obviously, and to start the year I thought he got — I thought he was consistent all year from square one in the first race.  Just was a matter of putting the whole day together,” said Stewart. Stewart not only credits the growth in confidence of Custer but in how well the team grew together as one throughout the year.

“You could see in his driving style he was gaining confidence, and both of these guys, I don’t think it was just Cole, I think it was Jeff or Kevin, whatever you’re going to go by today, I think they both grew together, and I mean, it’s a good thing,” said Stewart. “I think he’s grown a lot through the year.  I think the second time around at these tracks I think was huge for him in these cars, and the same for Jeff.  I think they really both grew a lot and grew together.”

The relationship between Custer and Meendering reminded Stewart of his relationship with Greg Zipadelli, then crew chief for Stewart and current competition director at SHR.

“It reminds me when Greg Zipadelli started as rookie driver and crew chief together.  This is a good pairing right now.  They’ve got trust in each other,” said Stewart.

Russell LaBounty/NKPPhoto

With NXS having the mantra, “Names are made here,” Stewart believes that Custer, in his rookie year, has established himself as the “greatest driver of the year” for the series.

“I think for Cole, he’s definitely established himself as one of the greatest drivers of the year in the Xfinity Series.  His mile-and-a-half record — his average on the mile-and-a-half tracks was No. 1 in the series.  He definitely showed strength in tracks that you have to be good at.  I’m proud of him,” said Stewart.

Custer will pilot the No. 00 Ford Mustang full-time for Stewart-Haas Racing with Biagi-DenBeste Racing for the 2018 NXS season with a part-time effort from the No. 98 Ford team.

2 Comments

  1. Robin Simpson

    January 6, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    Cole is an awesome driver I have been following him for the last 3 years and he surly has accomplished a lot , I give Tony Stewart a bib thank you for Cole I do agree he is shy I remember 2 years ago when I met Cole and asked him to sign the back of my shirt and had my picture taken with him he definitely shy. Cole is going to have a great year in 2018. Thank you again Keep up the good work getter done Cole

  2. Robin Simpson

    January 6, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    Cole is an awesome driver I have been following him for the last 3 years and he surly has accomplished a lot , I give Tony Stewart a big thank you for Cole I do agree he is shy I remember 2 years ago when I met Cole and asked him to sign the back of my shirt and had my picture taken with him he definitely shy. Cole is going to have a great year in 2018. Thank you again Keep up the good work getter done Cole

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