The 63rd running of the Daytona 500 Feb. 14 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway marks the 40th career NASCAR Cup Series start for Cole Custer, the series’ 2020 Rookie of the Year, and his second in The Great American Race.
In his Daytona 500 debut a year ago, Custer started 12th but was forced to retire on lap 174 due to a rear-end mechanical issue. He returned to the 2.5-mile superspeedway oval in August, when he started 16th and was working his way toward the top-10 in the final laps before being collected in a multicar accident three laps short of the finish.
● Eleven days after his 18th birthday, Custer started the 2016 ARCA Racing Series season opener and his first career race on the Daytona oval from the pole. He led a race-high 42 laps before bringing the No. 54 for car owner Ken Schrader home 10th.
● To earn a spot in the Daytona 500, drivers must first compete in the Duel – twin 150-mile qualifying races that set the 40-car field for the Daytona 500. Custer started seventh and finished fifth in his first career Duel appearance a year ago.
● Before drivers compete in the Duel, they race the clock in single-lap qualifying. The two fastest cars are locked into the field while the rest of the drivers are split into the Duel. Even-numbered qualifiers are in the first Duel and odd-numbered qualifiers are in the second Duel. Custer clocked the 14th-fastest lap in his single-car qualifying effort a year ago.
● For a select group of drivers – 24 to be specific – a non-points exhibition race around the Daytona road course kicks off their week at Daytona. The Busch Clash is comprised of Busch Pole winners from last season, past Busch Clash winners who competed full-time in 2020, Daytona 500 winners who competed fulltime in 2020, former Daytona 500 Busch Pole winners who competed full-time in 2020, as well as any NASCAR Cup Series drivers who made the playoffs in 2020, won a race in 2020 or won a stage in 2020. Custer earned a spot in Tuesday night’s Busch Clash by virtue of his victory at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta last July, which also earned a spot in the 16-driver Cup Series playoffs for the rookie driver. This is the first Busch Clash on the 14-turn, 3.61-mile Daytona road course.
● The Busch Clash will mark Custer’s second NASCAR Cup Series race on the Daytona road course. The NASCAR Cup Series raced on the Daytona road course for the first time last August, when Custer started 26th and finished 22nd. Custer had two previous starts on the Daytona road course in the 2018 and 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series races during Rolex 24 weekend, finishing third and ninth, respectively, in those two outings with Multimatic Ford GT4 co-drivers Ty Majeski and Scott Maxwell.
● Sandwiched between last year’s two NASCAR Cup Series starts and his 2016 ARCA Series debut at Daytona, Custer made six NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at the track from 2017 through 2019, all in SHR Fords. He had a best start of third in the August 2018 race, and best finishes of 14th in the 2018 and 2019 season openers, both seasons culminating with runner-up finishes in the series championship.
● Returning to Custer’s No. 41 Ford Mustang for SHR is team co-owner Gene Haas’ newest holding, Haas Tooling, which was launched as a way for CNC machinists to purchase high-quality cutting tools at great prices. Haas cutting tools are sold exclusively online at HaasTooling.com and shipped directly to end users. HaasTooling.com products became available nationally last July, and the cutting tools available for purchase at HaasTooling.com have proven to be even more important during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as CNC machines have become vital to producing personal protective equipment. Haas Automation, founded by Haas in 1983, is America’s leading builder of CNC machine tools. The company manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and rotary tables and indexers. All Haas products are constructed in the company’s 1.1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oxnard, California, and distributed through a worldwide network of Haas Factory Outlets.
Cole Custer, Driver of the No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
You’re kicking off your sophomore NASCAR Cup Series season at the Daytona 500. How will you approach this year’s race?
“For me, I just run the smartest race I can possible. I think you have to be aggressive in speedway racing. I think you have to race the whole time, but there are times when, if you’re in a bad spot, you might try and do the smarter route and hang back or something. It’s something where it’s the biggest and most prestigious race of the year and it’s the first one, so I think we’re all going all out. I mean, everybody wants to put their name in that hat of being a Daytona 500 winner. I think it’s something everybody wants to do there, and we’re going to put it all on the line to try and put our HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang in victory lane.”
How much more confidence are you bringing into this year’s race compared to a year ago?
“That’s one thing that comes with experience and watching video. Every single situation is different and you just have to know what the right move is and that comes with experience and watching film and studying, and also racing the whole race. I think if you’re kind of lagging back the whole race, you might not have the confidence of making those big moves at the end.”
Where do you feel is the better place to be if the big one occurs, in front or it or behind it?
“You want to be in front of it, but being in front of it is not easy and it doesn’t guarantee anything, I guess. It can happen at any moment, is the problem, so you really just have to go and race. We talk about trying to game it and trying to stay in front of it or behind it and everything, but for the most part you’ve just got to go race, hope for the best. If things are getting crazy and you’re in a bad spot, maybe you back out, but for the most part you go and race.”
You’ll be racing in the Busch Clash by virtue of your race win and playoff appearance last year. What are your thoughts on that event, being that it’s on the road course for the first time this year, before you dig in for qualifying and Daytona 500 preparation?
“It’s definitely an important race, especially with the amount of road courses that we are running this year. It’s a pretty important race because it’s one of the few races where we get to kind of almost use it as a little bit of a practice session for the road-course races to come. This one is not points-related, so you can go out there and try some things, maybe, and try to figure some things out for the future road courses. I think that’s the emphasis, or importance, of that race, for sure.”
What are your expectations for this year?
“I’m hungry to get going. I think we’re excited to try and go out there and run in the top-10. We’d like to win a race again and make the playoffs. I think that’s the biggest thing. Last year, we could hit it right from time to time and run in the top-10 and compete for a win, but we just need to do it more consistently and I think this year we have a lot more notes to look at. I have a lot better idea and more confidence in the cars, so I’m looking forward to trying to put ourselves in that category and try and be up front more. We’ve got to fight and claw to stay up there near the front and get stage points and make sure we’re there at the end of the race.”
By the end of your rookie Cup Series season last year, what do you feel you brought to the table at SHR?
“Your rookie year, you’re just making sure you’re not backing it into the fence and not tearing up racecars. So this year, you’ve been to all the racetracks, you have an idea of everything, so now you can go up there and really get aggressive with it and have some more confidence. I think we’re just really hungry to go out there and run toward the front more, and I think the more we can run toward the front and having those opportunities, we’re going to have more opportunities to win races. I’m ready to get the year going and get to Daytona.”
How big of a factor was the lack of practice time when the series returned to racing last May?
“It definitely hurt some to be a younger guy and not have the opportunity to really try things at the racetrack, whether it’s from a setup standpoint or just to kind of get used to the track or whatever it is. It definitely hurt a little bit, but you just have to learn to rely on different things like the simulator and watching videos and trying to really get ready before the weekend. It slows things down a little bit. I don’t know if it’s a make-or-break kind of thing, but it’s harder for the rookie guys and the younger guys to get up to speed because you don’t have the practice.”