Cole Custer entered the NASCAR season with high expectations and a hunger to learn.
After storming to seven Xfinity Series wins in 2019, Custer was selected to drive the high-profile No. 41 Cup ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.
So where has the 22-year-old rookie from Southern California turned for advice?
How about SHR teammate, 2014 Cup champion and current points leader Kevin Harvick.
“I try to talk with Kevin pretty much every weekend to get an idea going to tracks,” said Custer in a Zoom media session.
Custer said the advanced mentoring sessions with the 44-year-old Harvick have been “extremely helpful.”
“Kevin has really had an open notebook with me,” Custer said. “It’s just a matter of taking his experience and applying that to how I drive the car.
“Clint (Bowyer) and Aric (Almirola) have also been helpful. It’s been a huge asset to have those guys on my team.”
Those Racing 101 sessions with Harvick paid dividends in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
While Harvick won for the fourth time this season, Custer posted his career-best result of fifth in 19 Cup starts. It was also Custer’s first Cup race at Indianapolis.
Following this Sunday’s event at Kentucky Speedway, Custer hopes to accelerate his learning curve in the July 15 NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“Bristol is the perfect track for this,” Custer said. “You’re going to be beating, banging and throwing slide jobs. That’s going to make it extremely exciting when people are going for a million dollars. I think this might be one of the best All-Star races we’ve ever seen.”
Before Custer can compete in the main event, he must win a stage in the NASCAR Open where he already has devised a strategy.
“Try to go as hard as I can and make it to the front,” Custer said. “You might have to use the bumper and be a little aggressive. The only guy who gets any money out of this race is the winner, so you have to make it in.”
Custer has recorded four top-10 finishes in his six Xfinity races at BMS. But he would rather forget his experience in the Food City 500 Cup event this spring.
“That was not a fun day,” Custer said. “We were going forward and I felt like we were going to have a good run.”
Next came an episode of the Bristol experience
“Somebody spun out to the inside and then just collected us when he came back up track,” Custer said. “It was pretty much classic Bristol. Sometimes you just caught up in things there.”
According to Custer, the toughest adjustment to his overall rookie education in Cup has been getting a feel for his car.
“It’s been a little bit tough without having practice or qualifying to run through things and to adapt,” Custer said. “You’re up against a lot of stiff competition, so you’re just trying to catch on as fast as you can.”
That’s where the wisdom of Harvick comes in.
“There’s a lot of learning, but we spend time preparing for each race so we know what we’re getting into at the track,” said Custer, who also finished in the top 10 at Phoenix this season.
As for the challenge of competing in the win-or-else All-Star format Bristol, Custer predicts drama.
“There’s definitely going to be some guys going hard for that money,” Custer said. “Bristol is a track where you don’t have a lot of room and you are going really fast.”
So will there will some damaged sheet metal and highlight-reel crashes?
“I would put my money on that,” Custer said.
Custer said the presence of up to 30,000 spectators at BMS will just add to the big-game experience.
“That will be awesome,” Custer said. “It’s been really strange with no fans around before or after races. Having them back will be an energizer.”
Now, Custer just has to continue his high-speed apprenticeship and avoid the usual BMS pitfalls.
“You need to be passively-aggressive at Bristol,” Custer said. “You have to be there at the end of the race, but you can’t wait because somebody will get around you. Trying to balance those two things is extremely hard.
“And physically, Bristol is one of the toughest tracks we go to. With so many G-forces, it’s hard on your neck and everything else on your body. It’s just not an easy track.”
Despite those challenges, Custer said he’s “optimistic” about his All-Star outlook.
“We had a good car at the spring race, and we just got caught up in a wreck,” Custer said. “Hopefully we can stay out of that this time, but that’s just part of Bristol.”
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544
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