A stern, non-nonsense conversation at the start of the season apparently did the trick, where Cole Custer was concerned.
And now Custer is ready to take the next—and largest—step in his NASCAR career.
The driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, who will race for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), will drive the No. 41 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford for SHR next year.
Custer will succeed Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who ran out of time while trying to put together a deal for a second year in the No. 41. Suarez is the only foreign-born driver to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s top three touring series, having claimed the Xfinity title in 2016.
While Suarez is seeking his next opportunity in the stock car ranks, Custer will be the third driver of the No. 41 Ford in three years, following Kurt Busch and Suarez in the ride co-owned by Gene Haas and Tony Stewart.
“This is obviously a dream come true,” Custer said on Friday before opening Xfinity Series practice. “I’ve been around the garage for a long time, and when I was a kid, I never thought I would be good enough to be a Cup driver. It’s pretty unreal to have that happen.
“We obviously have a big race tomorrow, and that’s where our main focus is. It’s the biggest race of the season, and it all comes down to this race, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
At the start of the season, Custer was told by the ownership in no uncertain terms what was expected of him. The 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, Calif., responded with seven victories in 2019, bringing his career total to nine.
“You always put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Custer said. “I know we have fast cars and stuff like that, so you try to find ways and look at yourself to see what you can do better. I know there are still things that I can do better. It’s constantly looking back on it and trying to make yourself a better driver.”
For Suarez, the ouster from the No. 41 car came as a surprise.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Suarez acknowledged on Friday. “A lot of people have worked very hard on this team to try to put everything together, and unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We needed a few months. We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride for next year. My group of people, friends and a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing went to work, and we actually did a pretty good job.
“We pretty much got the goal, but, unfortunately, part of the money wasn’t on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later, and it wasn’t enough. It was a little unfortunate. It was a surprise. I was as shocked as you guys are probably right now, just a couple of nights ago. It is what it is. One door closes, another door opens.”
Where that other door will open remains to be seen. Stewart said on Friday that he would like to help Suarez remain in the series, but it’s Haas who has the final say about personnel for the No. 41.
“Tony is a great guy,” Suarez said. “In the last six months, I have learned that he is a very good friend. In the last week I have been talking to him a lot. He was talking to a lot of people and he was pushing very hard for me.
“Unfortunately, the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn’t have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. He pushed. I am sure that he pushed as hard as he could, like a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing did. It just didn’t work out.”