Cole Custer feels fortunate to be competing with a high-quality team in Stewart-Haas Racing in his rookie season, especially since the 2020 NASCAR Cup season has been one without practice and qualifying sessions prior to races.
There has been almost nothing normal about the Cup season since COVID-19 interrupted action in mid-March.
“I think this is a season we’re all going to remember for years, a year that has had unprecedented procedures and just overall so much different than what we’re used to,” Custer told The Detroit News. “It’s been hard being a rookie because you don’t get much practice or testing or time to feel things out.”
It’s definitely a learn-on-the-job type of situation for Custer since he can’t see his progress from last season or his last practice or last qualifying run at any given track due to his rookie status.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said. “You put a lot into how you prepare and how you get ready for a race. You try to watch as much video as you can, so you can get an idea of what you’re looking for before you go to the race track.
“You can also go to the Ford simulator and test things out and try to get an idea of what it’s going to feel like, but you don’t really know for sure what it’s going to feel like until you get into the race. It’s a lot of trying to learn on your feet and adapt as fast as you can.
“We try to get into a simulator once a week for about four hours and it’s helped. We can run setup changes through the cars and have an idea of what’s going to work for speed and for handling and what we can try and adjust on throughout the race.”
Custer, 22, is thrilled to have a resource in veteran Kevin Harvick, a teammate who is one of the stars in the series.
Harvick, the 2014 Cup series champion and owner of 52 career wins, including three this season, enters Sunday’s race – the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 – at the Brickyard in Indianapolis as the defending race champion.
Harvick is also the 2020 series leader with a 52-point cushion over Ryan Blaney, with Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski sitting third, 67 points behind Harvick.
“It’s been huge, being able to be teammates with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola,” Custer said. “They’re some of the best drivers in the sport, so to be able to work with them is a definitely a huge thing that I can lean on and ask advice and they’ve all been extremely helpful, like an open notebook for me.
“I try to talk to Kevin almost every single week to try to get an idea of what we’re looking for going into a race track.”
Custer became the youngest winner in the Camping World Truck Series at age 16 in 2014, then was a two-time series runnerup in the Xfinity series the previous two years while driving for Stewart-Haas.
Last November, Stewart-Haas announced Custer would replace Daniel Suarez in the No. 41 Ford Mustang after Suarez failed to make the playoffs last season.
Custer has just one top-10 finish this season, a ninth at Phoenix, in a race back in March, before the shutdown. Last weekend finished 16th in Race 1 at Pocono – which was won by Harvick last Saturday – then 17th on Sunday in Race 2.
Custer sits 26th in points with 241, or 100 points out of 16th place – held by Michigan native Erik Jones – which is the cutoff for the playoffs. Rookie Tyler Reddick, who won the Xfinity series title last year, is 26 points behind Jones.
“At Phoenix we had a top-10 and had a solid run, so it’s just trying to build off those things and trying to perfect every little thing because you’re having to adapt in a short amount of time,” Custer said.
Custer is looking forward to the Cup series stop at Michigan International Speedway in August, with the possibility of weekend doubleheader similar to the one at Pocono.
“Michigan is just fast, probably the fastest race track we go to,” Custer said. “Really big, carry a lot of throttle, so it’s just one of those tracks where you just hold on tight and hope for the best.
“It’s definitely a fun track for drivers to go to where we can kind of go search around and find some different lanes and kind of work the race track.”
As for the possibility of an MIS doubleheader, Custer said: “I think it’s interesting. It’s something that for a rookie it’s kind of nice because you’re able to kind of feel it out the first race and then really go hard the second race.
“I feel like it’s pretty interesting because we’ve never done it before in our sport, but I feel like it worked out really well at Pocono and I think it can work well in the future. It’s definitely a little hard on the teams trying to get the cars ready and things like that, but at the same time I think we figured out good ways to try and limit the amount of things we had to take. I think it worked out well for everybody.”
GMR Grand Prix
When: Saturday, noon
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 80 laps, 195.12 miles (road course)
Last year: Simon Pagenaud won from the eighth starting position.
Last race: Scott Dixon won the season opener at Texas on June 6.
NASCAR CUP SERIES
Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400
When: Sunday, 4 p.m.
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway; 160 laps, 400 miles
Last year: Kevin Harvick won from the pole in the final race to make the playoffs, matching his win from the pole 16 years earlier on the 2.5-mile oval.
Last race: Denny Hamlin earned his series-best fourth victory of the season at Pocono.