This was Cole Custer’s third trip to the Championship 4 in the Xfinity Series with his first two coming in 2018 and 2019.
In both years,he finished one spot behind Tyler Reddick.
Custer wasn’t to be denied this year.
When Cole Custer was sent to Stewart-Haas Racing’s NASCAR Xfinity Series team for 2023 and his Cup ride given to Ryan Preece, Custer could have sulked and complained.
Instead, Custer and his team headed by Jonathan Toney focused on the task ahead of them. Their reward: the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
“It was a calculated decision to move him back, and it was for him to gain confidence,” team co-owner Tony Stewart says. “When a driver makes it to the big show and then has to step back one series, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong, but there was a reason we made that decision. It’s character-building. I told him … ‘This is why we did what we did … the steps that you’re making and the progress you’ve made this year is exactly what we were hoping for.’”
Toney has been with Gene Haas’ race team since it began when it was known as Haas CNC Racing before Stewart joined it as a co-owner in 2009. In Toney’s 20 years with the organization, he has watched Custer grow from a young child into a man. He is a man in whom Custer has faith.
“I’m a pain to work with,” Custer says. “I probably asked J.T. 10,000 questions this year, and he’s truly looked into every single one. I overthink a lot of things.
“I’ve known J.T. since I was five years old. His first job in the top three series was with Jason Leffler in 2004 with Haas CNC Racing. I was around there because my dad, Joe, worked at the team. I knew I wanted to work with him this year. He won’t say it, but he’s one of the smartest people out there. You need somebody who believes in you.”
In their first season together, they produced three victories, six poles, 14 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes and led 586 laps. Ninety-six of those laps came in Saturday evening’s scheduled 200-lap season finale at the one-mile Phoenix Raceway that Custer won by 0.601 second over Sheldon Creed. Throughout the race Custer dueled with title contenders Justin Allgaier, John Hunter Nemechek and Sam Mayer. Occasionally, they rubbed door panels and at one point in the overtime event, Custer found himself three wide with Allgaier and Nemechek.
“To watch him go in turn one, and he was literally third going into one, and watch how he did what he had to do to get himself in a good position to get off of turn two was remarkable,” Stewart says. “Literally, I’ve watched the replay four times, and I still haven’t totally, 100 percent figured out exactly what he did behind the steering wheel, but it was super impressive,” Stewart says.
The title contenders never attempted to wreck one another or use a bumper to move the other one out of the way. Afterwards, they summed it up simply as “racing each other with respect.” Allgaier finished third, Mayer fifth, and Nemechek 28th after hitting the wall on the final lap when he cut a tire.
This was Custer’s third trip to the championship four in the Xfinity Series with his first two coming in 2018 and 2019. In both years he finished one position short. He lost the title to Tyler Reddick both years. However, he wasn’t to be denied this year.
Custer, who turns 26 in January, returns to the Xfinity Series in 2024 for Stewart-Haas Racing, but Stewart says he knows that one day the California native will return to NASCAR’s Cup Series.
“He’s doing the work,” Stewart says. “He’s been a great leader at the shop with these guys. I have the utmost confidence that he will be back in a Cup car at some point.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship
1. (7) Cole Custer (P), Ford, 202.
2. (5) Sheldon Creed, Chevrolet, 202.
3. (8) Justin Allgaier (P), Chevrolet, 202.
4. (9) Riley Herbst, Ford, 202.
5. (16) Sam Mayer (P), Chevrolet, 202.
6. (15) Josh Berry, Chevrolet, 202.
7. (2) Austin Hill, Chevrolet, 202.
8. (6) Chandler Smith #, Chevrolet, 202.
9. (1) Sammy Smith #, Toyota, 202.
10. (24) Kaz Grala, Toyota, 202.
11. (20) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 202.
12. (18) Jeb Burton, Chevrolet, 202.
13. (14) Parker Retzlaff #, Chevrolet, 202.
14. (13) Rajah Caruth(i), Chevrolet, 202.
15. (19) Brett Moffitt, Ford, 202.
16. (30) Parker Kligerman, Chevrolet, 202.
17. (21) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 202.
18. (11) Ryan Sieg, Ford, 202.
19. (17) Dawson Cram, Chevrolet, 202.
20. (25) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 202.
21. (12) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 202.
22. (4) Myatt Snider, Toyota, 202.
23. (34) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 202.
24. (38) Anthony Alfredo, Chevrolet, 202.
25. (26) Josh Williams, Chevrolet, 202.
26. (27) Ryan Ellis, Chevrolet, 202.
27. (28) Joey Gase, Ford, 202.
28. (3) John Hunter Nemechek (P), Toyota, 202.
29. (29) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 202.
30. (33) Timmy Hill(i), Ford, 200.
31. (37) Joe Graf Jr, Ford, 200.
32. (32) Blaine Perkins #, Chevrolet, 200.
33. (36) Stefan Parsons(i), Chevrolet, 194.
34. (10) Connor Mosack, Toyota, Accident, 180.
35. (31) Chris Hacker(i), Chevrolet, Suspension, 178.
36. (35) JJ Yeley, Ford, Accident, 101.
37. (23) Derek Kraus(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 84.
38. (22) Kyle Sieg, Ford, Vibration, 14.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 90.527 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 13 Mins, 53 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.601 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 46 laps.
Lead Changes: 12 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: S. Smith # 1-11;A. Hill 12-32;J. Nemechek (P) 33-52;C. Custer (P) 53-90;J. Nemechek (P) 91;C. Custer (P) 92-108;J. Nemechek (P) 109-126;S. Creed 127-130;J. Nemechek (P) 131-156;C. Custer (P) 157-183;J. Nemechek (P) 184;D. Hemric 185-188;C. Custer (P) 189-202.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Cole Custer (P) 4 times for 96 laps; John Hunter Nemechek (P) 5 times for 66 laps; Austin Hill 1 time for 21 laps; Sammy Smith # 1 time for 11 laps; Sheldon Creed 1 time for 4 laps; Daniel Hemric 1 time for 4 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 20,00,16,21,1,18,7,9,19,25
Stage #2 Top Ten: 00,1,20,21,16,9,8,2,7,98