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Custer to move up to Cup in 2020, replaces Suarez in No. 41

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Cole Custer and Daniel Suarez had answered the questions patiently for weeks, fielding a repetitive loop of inquiries into their 2020 plans. Custer seemed primed for the next rung of the NASCAR ladder, and Suarez’s one-year deal was set to expire with no safety net visible. Much like the championship battle that takes place this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the drama surrounding the future of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford had reached a crescendo.

This week, they found those answers in just a few days’ span, with the initial media reports, Suarez’s Thursday night social-media confessional and ultimately an SHR announcement Friday morning. Custer will join the Cup Series ranks next season, redirecting his focus after his title bid in Saturday’s Xfinity Series finale. Suarez faces a late-season ouster for the second straight year, expressing surprise at the developments as he hurtles toward another offseason of uncertainty.

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Team co-owner Tony Stewart tried to piece through some of the deal’s inner workings Friday morning at the 1.5-mile track, saying the No. 41 team was primarily the domain of co-owner Gene Haas. But the three-time Cup champ also said most everyone at the organization was comfortable with the decision to give the 21-year-old driver a shot at his rookie series at NASCAR’s top level.

“When you’ve got a feeder series and you’ve got your own program to work young drivers up through there, sometimes you get in scenarios like this where you’ve got more drivers than you have cars,” Stewart said. “So it’s a tough spot to be in for us as management, but we’re going to try to work with Daniel and see if we can find a solution to keep him in our system and hopefully get him back in a car one day. Cole has definitely earned his spot, for sure. Everybody’s worked hard. I mean, we wish we could have five cars, but we can’t, so it puts us in this odd position to make a change like that.

“So it’s bittersweet. We love Daniel, we love what he does, but we also believe in Cole and believe that this is the right time and his opportunity, and he’s really made big gains this year.”

How Custer went from potential prospect to a “definitely earned” Cup Series driver is a story unto itself. The California native had soldiered through single-win seasons in 2017 and 2018, but he received an offseason mandate from Stewart to ramp up his performance. He responded with a seven-win, six-pole campaign and a repeat trip to the championship round. 

Thursday, Custer hemmed and hawed through his Media Day obligations after the news originally leaked from Just 21 hours later, he could speak freely about the next step of his career.

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Custer said, tempering his anticipation with his focus on Saturday’s finale. “I’ve been around the garage a long time and I think when I was a kid, I never thought I’d be good enough to be a Cup driver, so it’s pretty unreal to have that happen.”

For Suarez, the pendulum swung to the other side of the unreal. Though he greeted the assembled media with an especially cheery “¡Hola!” as he emerged from the No. 41 hauler for one of the final times, his shell shock over a seemingly close deal evaporating in the 11th hour was palpable. 

“It has been less than 36 hours since I found out,” Suarez said, hinting at the pocket of unpredictability around the development. “Like I said, I have been talking with most of you for the last few weeks and I am pretty sure that most of you saw me very confident because I knew where we were. I was 95% sure that we were in. I thought we were in good shape. I was extremely surprised. A lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing worked very hard to put everything together. It was disappointing to see that.”

Suarez claimed the 2016 Xfinity Series championship, then jumped to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Cup Series operation for two seasons before being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. Suarez succeeded Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Ford for the 2019 season, claiming just four top-five finishes in the 35 races to date and missing the playoff field.

Suarez indicated he has had conversations with team owner Richard Childress, but none recently. Regarding Stewart’s intent to find a path to keep Suarez in the SHR fold, Suarez said those talks continue but the jolt of this week’s news was still fresh.

“I had a conversation with him earlier today,” Suarez said. “He is trying to help me stay in the family. I don’t know what I am going to do yet. There are a lot of things going through my head right now and I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to be here. That is the way it is. I have to get back on my feet and find the best option for myself.”

Over the past month, SHR inked deals to keep Aric Almirola (No. 10) and Clint Bowyer (No. 14) in the fold for the 2020 season. Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion and a driver in the Championship 4, will pilot the No. 4 Ford.