Who will be NASCAR's biggest bulldog now that Ryan Newman is no longer in the field? It will take a while to determine, but early indications are that Cole Custer could assume that role. Both drivers are compact and strong with thick necks that seem to mirror their personalities. Both drivers will fight for every square inch of pavement.
Unfortunately, Custer did not have the equipment in 2021 to allow him to showcase that determination. He finished 26th in the points' standings with only two top-10s and eight top-15s. That was a far cry from 2020 when he had seven top-10s and 14 top-15s. More remarkable still, he won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway and qualified for the playoffs.
That victory was not simply handed to him. He passed Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap after a green-white-checkered finish – and it came on the heels of a fifth-place finish the week previous at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After sustaining damage in an accident the next week at Texas Motor Speedway, he was in top form with back-to-back top-10s at Kansas Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The 2020 season was the first of two years without any significant practice or qualification due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It should have penalized rookies more than the rest of the field since they lacked the mental notebook to make up for the derth of track time.
It says a lot that Custer was able to have such a strong rookie season.
But that was while Stewart-Haas Racing was at their peak. Lead driver Kevin Harvick won 10 races in 2020, which made him the favorite to win the championship. When the playoffs began, Harvick's results slipped, but Custer held on. Lacking significant playoff bonus points, he was eliminated in the Round of 16, but earned seven top-15s in the final 10 races.
Consistency means a lot in this sport.
With Harvick losing his luster, the Stewart-Haas Racing hangover persisted into 2021. The only driver in the organization to win was Aric Almirola, and like Custer in the previous season, he exited the playoffs early. Whatever the issues were with the company effected the youngest drivers the most. Chase Briscoe finished 23rd in the standings with an average finish of 19.6.
The final 10 races of 2021 looked a lot different than 2020; Custer earned only three top-15s in that span, but he wasn't that far off in several of the other races with a few more high-teens and low-20s results.
While we expect him to land in about the same place in points, it would be unsurprising to see more top-10s and an increased frequency of top-15s. One reason for this is because Custer sustained crash damage in eight races last year. If SHR improves their overall performance, he won't have to push quite so hard to carry the car.
Custer should also benefit from the reintroduction of practice. True, it's only 15 minutes most weeks, but that will give him a better feel for the car and accelerate his learning curve.
Three Best Tracks *
Dover (10.3 in 3 attempts)
Kansas (15.8 in 4)
Charlotte oval (17.0 in 3)
Three Worst Tracks *
Bristol paved (28.7 in 3)
Michigan (27.3 in 3)
Daytona (25.5 in 4)
Victories: None (Best finish: 10th, Talladega 1 & Dover)
Top-fives: 0 (.000)
Top-10s: 2 (.056)
Top-15s: 8 (.222)
Top-20s: 1 (.472)
2021 Finishes at or above rank = 29 (80.6%)
* Active tracks with three or more starts