There Was Something on Fire at Michigan, and It Wasn’t Cole Custer’s Cup Series Career

Watkins Glen in two weeks will mark the 100th race of Cole Custer’s NASCAR Cup Series career. With just one victory and 11 top-10 finishes, it’s fair to say the scary situation at Michigan International Speedway that started with his left-front tire summed up his level of job security for 2023.

Custer has burned through his remaining three-year apprenticeship and faces the prospect of dropping down to a low-end team if he wants to stay in the Cup Series.

Cole Custer’s car caught fire at Michigan International Speedway

Cole Custer, driver of the No. 41 Ford, walks the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 3, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Cole Custer, driver of the No. 41 Ford, walks the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 3, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It’s not possible to just say Cole Custer finished 31st, his worst showing since the fifth race of the season, over the weekend in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway. How he finished 31st is the entirety of the story.

Custer had to make a hasty escape from the No. 41 Ford in the pits 94 laps into the FireKeepers Casino 400 after the last in a series of flat left-front tires apparently triggered the tire that trashed the front end of the car and filled the cabin with smoke.

Custer was running 29th when he steered to the bottom of the track at a reduced speed with what seemingly was a routine flat tire. As he rolled down the straight toward pit row, however, fire became evident in the wheel well, and the flames became more intense by the second.

It’s likely the torn-up tire ripped open a hose, spilling flammable fluid on a red-hot brake assembly. The front left was engulfed by the time Custer pulled to a stop in his stall, and the team hollered for him to get out. By then, the thick smoke was already entering the cabin and partially obscuring the view of the driver’s side of the car, so it wasn’t apparent for a moment that he made it out safely as the crew and emergency personnel batted down the flames.

The incident marked the third left-front tire to go down on the car in a matter of 20 laps.

It’s been that kind of season for Cole Custer in the No. 41 Ford

“I don’t know what happened and why they kept blowing,” driver Cole Custer said of the tire issue through the Ford Performance team. “It just seems like that’s the way our year has gone.  We can’t seem to catch a break in most of these races.  I don’t know.  It just sucks to have another day end short, but we’ll move on to the next one.”

The season will be two-thirds over when the checkered flag comes down at Richmond Raceway this weekend, and Custer, 24, doesn’t have much to show for it. Finishes of 33rd at Las Vegas and 34th at Atlanta early in the season buried Custer in 27th place in points, and he’s never recovered.

His only top-10s have come in the Atlanta summer race and on the Indianapolis road course in the past month. Custer is 25th in points with no real prospects for cracking the top 20 by the end of the season.

Stewart-Haas Racing is facing a decision

Stewart-Haas Racing has a puzzle on its hands, courtesy of Aric Almirola, who announced before the season this would be his last year in the NASCAR Cup Series. Rumors have been swirling for a month now that Almirola might stick around for one more season.

While hammering out a resolution to the Almirola situation, SHR will also need to make the call on Cole Custer. The driver of the No. 41 Ford won a race at Kentucky Speedway in 2020 to qualify for the playoffs as a rookie, but he closed the regular season 21st in points.

He slipped to 26th last season with just two top-10 finishes, but Custer got the benefit of the doubt because the entire SHR team struggled throughout the year. Sitting in 25th place so late in the current season does nothing for job security, especially with Ryan Preece on the SHR roster as a reserve driver and eager to return to Cup Series action.

There are options for Stewart-Haas Racing beyond Preece, and Custer could conceivably find himself pink-slipped by the end of the season.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.

Like Sportscasting on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @sportscasting19 and subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected]

RELATED: Tony Stewart Paints a Rosy Picture for Stewart-Haas Racing Results in 2022 but the Numbers Tell a Different Story