Cole Custer Is Caught in the Middle of an Ownership Disagreement That Will Determine His Future
His work at the end of the NASCAR playoff race at Charlotte showed Cole Custer can be a team player. Unfortunately for him, Custer still has no idea which team he will be playing for in 2023 even though every other major question in Cup Series Silly Season is settled.
With three races left, Custer finds himself caught in a difference of opinions between the owners at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick put a bow on Silly Season over the weekend
NASCAR Cup Series drivers Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick made separate but connected announcements over the weekend. Busch, recovering from the effects of a concussion, will not return to full-time racing in 2023, freeing the No. 45 Toyota at 23XR Racing. Reddick said Richard Childress and Busch’s team had reached a deal allowing him to move to 23XI next season instead of waiting until 2024.
With that, the compelling questions about 2023 Cup Series rides appear settled. All that remain are a few relatively minor transactions:
- Almost inexplicably (we say “almost” because sponsor money has a funny way of trumping ability), the chatter has Ty Dillon landing in the No. 77 Chevy of Spire Motorsports. Corey LaJoie is presumed to be safe in Spire’s No. 7 Chevy.
- Front Row has no reason not to return Michael McDowell and Todd Gilliland in 2023, but there hasn’t been an announcement.
- Rick Ware Racing typically waits until late in the offseason to determine its lineup of field-filler drivers.
The one not-so-minor situation awaiting clarification involves the No. 41 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing, manned for the time being by Cole Custer.
Cole Custer hasn’t done enough to merit another season at SHR
It’s not as though the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords were all that good in the last year of the Gen 6 car or the debut of the Next Gen era, but Cole Custer has not lived up to the potential he displayed in 2020.
Custer won at Kentucky Speedway in just his 20th career NASCAR Cup Series start and finished with seven top-10 results. He was a quick out in the playoffs, but getting that far as a rookie showed promise.
In the two seasons since, however, Custer has produced one pole position and five top-10 finishes in 69 races. His only meaningful contribution came at Charlotte two weeks ago as he went along with his team’s ruse regarding an alleged deflating tire, slowing traffic behind him to help Chase Briscoe slide into the next round of the playoffs.
Custer showed some racing chops in the 2019 Xfinity Series season and is still just 24 years old, but three full seasons is usually all the runway a team will give a driver before making a decision. In the case of SHR, it looks as though the owners need more time to decide on the 2023 lineup.
Gene Haas told The Associated Press on Sunday he wants to keep Custer in the No. 41, but co-owner Tony Stewart prefers handing the keys to Ryan Preece, who has been the organization’s reserve driver this year.
Ryan Preece looks like a better choice than Cole Custer
Gene Haas may be reluctant to replace Cole Custer because he’s looking down the road. Kevin Harvick isn’t likely to race beyond 2023, and Aric Almirola had to be talked into coming back in order to salvage an important sponsorship deal. By 2024, Chase Briscoe might be the only holdover for an organization whose seven-year itch with drivers not named Kevin Harvick usually comes after five seasons.
In this case, however, swapping Ryan Preece in for Custer is a justifiable move. Preece’s nine top-10 finishes in three full-time Cup series seasons hardly set him apart from Custer, but he was driving Chevys for JTG-Daugherty, two rungs down the ladder from SHR when it comes to equipment and funding.
Preece drove the 2021 season without a charter, and the team decided it could no longer fund the No. 37 Chevy. Given a choice between Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the team kept Stenhouse in a decision rooted more in sponsor money than results.
SHR brought Preece in both as COVID-19 insurance and with an eye toward Almirola’s retirement. Almirola pulled a 180 and re-upped for next season, but Preece can upgrade the No. 41 Ford in 2023 and buy time for SHR to figure out how to slide a prospect like Zane Smith into Harvick’s car in 2024.
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