Cole Custer has accomplished many feats throughout his racing career in all NASCAR national series. Now he can add a new one — NASCAR champion.
Custer outdueled fellow Xfinity Series Championship 4 competitors Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer and John Hunter Nemechek on Saturday at Phoenix Raceway to earn the title in his return season to the series. Custer had to endure a final restart in NASCAR Overtime to win the race and finish ahead of Allgaier, who was third, Mayer in fifth and Nemechek in 28th.
“I thought it was over,” Custer said. “I mean, went from first to third, and I was able to shift the car all night. And Doug Yates horsepower worked out, pulled me off the corner. I can’t believe we won that thing after going back to third on that restart.
“Man, I can’t say enough about these guys. We started the year off and it was a struggle and we had to kind of dig deep with each other, really talk about how to get better and to see how much this group has grown through the year.”
The 25-year-old California native spent the previous three seasons in the Cup Series, piloting the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, but the organization’s brass moved him to the Xfinity Series for the 2023 season. With an abundance of success in Custer’s first Xfinity stint, expectations were towering for the No. 00 team in 2023.
“You get knocked down a little bit and you just want to prove that you can go out there and do it,” he said of the move. “I think these guys have just really always believed in me all year and I just can’t thank them enough for giving me really fast race cars and still believing in me when things weren’t going great.”
Custer found his consistency in the spring, piling up 11 consecutive top 10s between Richmond Raceway in the first weekend of April through early July at Atlanta Motor Speedway — the longest and most consistent stretch of his career. The No. 00 team picked up a pair of victories on road courses in the process, first taking the checkered flag in a wild finish at Portland International Raceway before leading every lap in the inaugural Chicago Street Race, which was cut short due to weather.
The team again found its special recipe during the playoffs, earning finishes of sixth or better in the opening four races of the playoffs and quickly advancing to the Round of 8.
It came down to Martinsville and a frenzied finish for Custer to qualify for the right to compete for a championship. On the final set of corners, the No. 00 car was involved in a multicar incident and threw his car in reverse to get across the start/finish line while catching fire. After a few nerve-wracking moments to confirm the scoring, it was enough to earn a spot in the Championship 4.
Winning the championship at Phoenix is Custer’s first title in three Championship 4 appearances. He won the opening two stages in the 2018 championship race, but a late pit strategy call dropped him to second behind Tyler Reddick, who won the title. Custer finished runner-up to Reddick once more in 2019.
Custer jumped to the Cup Series in 2020, replacing Daniel Suárez, and was the only rookie to win with a triumph at Kentucky Speedway. That vaulted him into the playoffs and assured him he’d win Rookie of the Year ahead of Reddick and Christopher Bell.
This season is the first time Stewart-Haas Racing has won a championship at the Xfinity Series level, and it’s SHR’s first NASCAR championship since 2014 with Kevin Harvick. For crew chief Jonathan Toney, it was his first Xfinity championship in his first full-time season. This marks the seventh NXS championship for Ford and second in the last four years after Austin Cindric won in 2020. Ford’s other champions include Greg Biffle (2002), Carl Edwards (2007), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2011-12), and Chris Buescher (2015).