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Cole Custer's No. 00 Ford leads a small pack out of Turn 3 at Pocono Raceway
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Custer quietly surging into Xfinity championship picture

LONG POND, Pa. – In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Cole Custer is quietly and unassumingly emerging as a championship contender. He may not have a race win yet in 2018, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is coming on strong following a fifth-place finish in the Pocono Green 250 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons. 

Custer started the day on the right note by earning his third pole position of the season and led the first two laps before Kyle Busch took over the lead on Lap 3. Busch would go on to win the race.

RELATED: Complete race results | Xfinity standings | Schedule

The No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team made a strategy play at the end of Stage 1 that paid off in a big way. Custer pitted from fourth-place on Lap 22 to be up front at the start of Stage 2.

“We pitted early just trying to get some track position there,” crew chief Jeff Meendering told after the race. “We knew we could make it to the end of the second stage really easy and then the last stage, we had to pit at that one so we could make it to the end of the race on fuel.”

The move put Custer out front for 21 more laps and he was nearly able to grab his first stage win of 2018. However, Paul Menard got past him with two laps to go to deny Custer the playoff point. From there, Custer spent a good portion of the final stage running as high as second before ending the day in fifth.

“We just didn’t have really good long-run speed,” Custer said on pit road after the race. “That was our biggest problem. We just got too tight at the end of a run. It was interesting to run the package and try to learn it throughout the day. I just think we needed a little more there.”

The race saw the Xfinity Series use the same aero package that was used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last season. The package featured a bigger splitter and spoiler, specially-designed aero ducts and restrictor plates. The package will be used again next weekend at Michigan International Speedway and in September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We are getting better and better and we are starting to hit our stride now,” Custer said. “We’ve always had fast cars and now we are starting to get the finishes. We need just a little bit more and just the fine details, but I think we’re pretty close right now.”

RELATED: Race recap of Pocono Green 250Custer’s career stats

Custer and his team have found their rhythm with back-to-back top-five finishes. He also has nine top 10s in the past 10 races in 2018. Dating back to last August at Bristol, the California native has 19 top 10s in his last 24 races and a dominating victory in last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He now holds a one-point edge on second place in the standings over Daniel Hemric, with Tyler Reddick two points back of Custer in fourth place.

“We are set up pretty good to make the playoffs,” Meendering said of his driver and team. “But to win the championship, we need to keep stepping it up. Keep getting better every week and we’re heading in that direction.”