August 20, 2022

Cole Custer pulled into a 90 degree turn in one of the worst situations for a driver: his brakes weren’t working.

The 24-year-old was in third place in the Henry 180, but as he headed into the tight corner, the brakes on his #7 car blew out. The vehicle skidded off the track with the front bumper barely attached before coming to a stop, leaving Custer in the middle of a smoking wreck.

“We were driving well, we led a few laps and overall we lost brakes at the end,” he said with a chuckle. “So that’s probably the worst feeling you can have as a driver.”

The race, which took place in the Xfinity Series, served as a microcosm for Custer’s struggles in his third full-time Cup Series season driving the No. 41 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing, which no didn’t make the top 10. The driver says he and his team have derailed several solid rides due to “random” events.

“It’s kind of one of those years where it’s kind of like what’s going to go wrong next,” he said.

In the Cup Series race at Martinsville, Custer raced in the top five until the end of stage two before his pit crew lost a tire, dropping him on the back.

“It’s a frustrating feeling because it’s extremely difficult to overtake these cars,” he said. “So when you’re sent to the back, it’s really really hard work trying to get you back to the front.”

“These Cars” refers to the Next Gen NASCAR car that debuted for the Cup Series this season, which has a carbon fiber body and standardized parts designed to create more parity in top stock racing series because. For the governing body, it worked; there have been 5 first-time winners this season, including 2020 rookie Tyler Reddick last week at Road America, and rookie Austin Cindric winning the Daytona 500.

The struggles come after an impressive career start. Custer, the 2020 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, won the Quaker State 400 that year in Kentucky. He was the only rookie to win a race that season.

Prior to that, he raced full-time in the Xfinity Series and finished No. 2 in the 2019 standings behind Reddick. But that success didn’t translate to the Cup Series, largely because of the drastic differences in riding standards.

Custer said the caliber of competition has increased dramatically between the two series, that in Xfinity you race 10-12 drivers who can win a race whereas in Cup you race 25-30.

“Small mistakes cost you so much more just because it’s so much harder to get to the peloton,” he said. “You have to be good at everything, you can’t miss anything.”

Custer and his crew didn’t have that level of consistent excellence, with penalty-related issues at Martinsville for mud blocking the radiator at Bristol, where he started on pole but had to stop after just five laps.

Despite his struggles, Custer remains optimistic, noting his team has been hitting high speeds throughout the year but needs to keep working on consistency. He noted that some of the team’s issues were down to luck, but they needed to make sure they were “buttoned up” for future races.

“We’re just all ready for that to change, I think everyone in our team knows we have speed,” he said. “It’s just a matter of consistency and getting things right.”

They’ll have to fix that soon. In more than 90 Cup Series races, Custer has just two top-five finishes and knows how important his improvement will be to retain his spot with Stewart-Haas Racing.

“At Cup level you’re always under scrutiny, you’re on a national stage, for sure it’s a lot of stress,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you just have to go out there and focus on what you can control.”

This story was originally published July 7, 2022 11:40 a.m.

Varun Shankar is a junior at the University of Maryland who is interning with the sports section of The Charlotte Observer for the summer. He is a sportswriter and reporter for the Maryland student newspaper, The Diamondback, and a high school sportswriter for The Washington Post.