HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Cole Custer qualified on the pole, led 95 laps and swept the opening stages of Saturday’s Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His team, Stewart-Haas Racing, took home the owners championship.
But it wasn’t enough for the No. 00 driver to clinch the championship title he wanted most of all: the Xfinity Series driver championship.
“We were really close, it just sucks to be second,” Custer said on pit road after his runner-up result, as race-winner Tyler Reddick celebrated his Xfinity Series championship on the frontstretch.
“We’ve come a long ways and everybody has worked really hard. It means a lot, but it’s still bittersweet when you finish second.”
His No. 00 Ford carrying plenty of speed, Custer remained ahead of the field for the opening 93 laps. John Hunter Nemechek passed him for the lead at Lap 94, but Custer remained ahead of Championship 4 drivers Reddick, Christopher Bell and Daniel Hemric. The other three title contenders and leader Nemechek pitted under green with less than 100 laps remaining, leaving Custer to inherit the lead again until he also pitted under green two laps later.
At that point, Custer was running behind the rest of the Championship 4 drivers in the field and became frustrated on the radio, as he tried to race back to the front.
“We might have made a mistake on the strategy, on pitting too late,” co-owner Tony Stewart said. “But like Cole said, he got to his bumper there, and I thought we were going to be in good shape there, and then just the balance shifted on him.”
Reddick passed Bell for the lead at Lap 164, and Custer soon followed into second. He attempted to chase down Reddick’s No. 9 Chevrolet in the waning laps, but couldn’t follow Reddick’s high-line run as well to catch him.
“I felt like we had to kind of make up that time, which we obviously had newer tires, so it was somewhat easy to make up the time, but you kind of get to a point on tires where everything starts to equal out, and I felt like that kind of happened, and also I mean, Tyler just ran the top better than I could,” Custer said. “I couldn’t get up there and do it like he could. He kind of practiced that all weekend, and I just wasn’t good enough at it …
“I guess that’s something to practice for next year, but we … I feel like we almost … pretty much (did) everything right this race.”
Several people approached Custer as he stood on pit road after the race, including team owners Stewart and Gene Haas, his father and Stewart-Haas Racing President Joe Custer, and his crew chief Jeff Meendering.
Having served as crew chief during his rookie season last year, Meendering – who has also guided Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte atop the pit box in his career – has seen the 20-year-old driver mature in their short time together.
“He gets more and more solid every week,” Meendering told NASCAR.com in the garage. “He doesn’t do anything that surprises you anymore. It’s kind of the sign of a veteran driver. Just solid every week. I feel like every track we’ve gone to this year, we’ve had really good speed and we’ve had a good shot of winning. Little tough to swallow, this one. …
“We’ll just take the positive out of this. We still won the owners championship, so that’s pretty good, big achievement. We’ll go back, we’ll regroup … We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
Stewart also noted his driver’s increasing confidence, as he spoke to Custer’s progress as a driver. Custer “definitely” will be back with Stewart-Haas Racing next year, he said.
“I mean, you can see it in his driving. You especially can see it when he gets in traffic, how much confidence he has this year in traffic versus last year. It’s just part of the building process.
“You know, I think we’ll get through this winter and get started next year, I think you’ll see him at another level that’s a stop above this.”