By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
Some would say the only successful way to end a season across professional sports is with the culmination of the ultimate goal – a championship. Cole Custer fulfilled this popular notion in earning the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series title, but Stewart-Haas Racing also synonymously showcased the next-best possible scenario with the long-awaited emergence of a rising star.
Understandably lost in the hype surrounding his teammate’s championship performance in the finale at Phoenix Raceway, Riley Herbst quietly capped his season by notching a fifth-straight top-four finish.
While a strong end to the year may have flown under the radar for most, it certainly didn’t slip by team owner Tony Stewart, who firmly believes Herbst is on a similar trajectory to Custer after completing his third full-time season for SHR.
Coming off of what was a career-best campaign the year prior, Herbst had shown flashes of his potential as a third-generation racer, but was still missing one thing: a win in NASCAR.
In his 139th Xfinity start, Herbst would finally secure that elusive victory – at his home track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway no less – in what wound up being one of the most dominant performances across all three national series in 2023.
“When I talked to Riley after the Vegas race, I said, ‘That’s the hardest one,’” Stewart told Kickin’ the Tires. “The first one is always the hardest. After that, it becomes easier because you’ve done it. You know the steps you took to get yourself there.
“Riley’s finish to the season has been remarkable. He came to victory lane to congratulate (Custer), and I said, ‘Remember that conversation we had? You will carry momentum now.’ And he’s carried it all the way to the end of the season.
“I said, ‘You don’t even realize how much that momentum is going to carry through the off-season to next year.’
“For Cole to win the championship, for Riley to have the run that he’s had at the end of the season, I couldn’t be more proud of our Xfinity program and the direction and how well these two drivers are doing driving our race cars.”
For the first time in quite a few years, Stewart-Haas Racing has some clarity surrounding their future with a strong foundation locked down in NASCAR’s developmental ranks.
Custer will return to the No. 00 in an effort to defend his title, while Herbst seeks to keep momentum rolling into 2024, as both drivers were signed to one-year contracts for the upcoming season.
Seeing as SHR finished as the best team in the garage, others will surely be on notice. But there’s more to it than results and the title.
Following his championship, Custer spoke to the deeper impact Herbst and his team had on his Playoffs run by virtue of a healthy rapport, which should only strengthen in 2024.
“Riley has been a huge part of this,” Custer said. “If they had made the Playoffs, I would have been scared. It’s cool to see. He’s really putting it all together.
“I think it’s definitely been a good relationship. Just how our teams have worked together this year, too. Being able to bounce ideas off each other and really be able to get our cars better and better and better has been huge.
“Without them… We wouldn’t be where we’re at.”
Aside from being teammates and born on the west coast, another crucial commonality between Custer and Herbst is the role Davin Restivo has played in their successes.
In 2019, Restivo was Custer’s lead engineer in the Xfinity Series when he won seven races. This year, after over two full-time seasons with Richard Boswell atop the pit box, a change was implemented naming Restivo as Herbst’s new crew chief for the remaining 19 races.
In their first start together, Herbst finished runner-up at Nashville Superspeedway.
In 14 starts with Boswell, Herbst posted a 16.9 average finish with six top-10s that came in the opening six races. With Restivo, the 24-year-old maintained a 13.6 average with 10 top-10s, including the win and eight top-fives.
During his championship press conference, Custer went out of his way to credit Restivo for what he’s done for his career, stating, “He’s a huge part of what we’re doing.”
Seeing what Herbst has done in the little time he’s been paired with Restivo – in addition to the influence he had on Custer as an eventual champion – adds another level of intrigue and optimism when looking ahead to 2024 for the No. 98 team.
After years of putting in the work and going through growing pains, it finally seems as if it’s all starting to come together.
While 2023 may not have been his best season statistically, Herbst closed out the year by showing the racing world what he’s capable of and makes a convincing argument that he’ll be in the conversation to bring Stewart-Haas Racing back-to-back championships in the Xfinity Series.
“To end the season strong was everything that we wanted,” Herbst said. “Not only did we consistently run in the top-five, but I also scored my first career win at my home track. I think it’s a testament of how hard this No. 98 Monster Energy team and the entire SHR Xfinity Series program has worked over the past couple of years.
“At the beginning of the year, I wanted to go back to the basics and focus on getting that milestone win. The year threw us a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but we were able to get to victory lane and prove that we were a team to compete with.
“Knocking off five straight top-fives is exactly what we needed to do to end the season after that. We were consistently running up front with the playoff guys and competing for wins. I’m so proud of this team and all that we’ve overcome this year, and I’m excited to continue my journey at SHR in 2024.”