Daniel Suarez returning to the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team was supposed to be a done deal, until it wasn’t. Prior to the season finale at Homestead, the announcement was made that Cole Custer would take over the ride, making the jump from the XFINITY Series to the Cup Series in 2020. He will have great equipment as he makes the transition to the next level, but only time will tell whether Custer can become a future cornerstone of SHR. In the meantime, it’s time to take a closer look at what fantasy owners can expect out of the 21-year-old in his rookie year.
Yes, he has had strong equipment throughout his NASCAR career, but Custer has shown the ability to get the most out of it while making steady gains. He finished his first season in the XFINITY Series with one win, seven Top 5s, 19 Top 10s and a 13.3 average finish. In Year 2, he won another race while posting 14 Top 5s, 26 Top 10s and a 9.0 average finish. This past season, Custer exploded for seven wins, 17 Top 5s and 24 Top 10s while leading 922 laps, the second most in the series.
The steady, upward trajectory is encouraging for a young driver, especially for one who will be jumping into a premier ride. You also have to love that he has been at his best at the high-speed, intermediate ovals that make up a majority of the Cup Series schedule. Six of Custer’s nine XFINITY wins have come at tracks between one mile and two miles in length, and in 53 total races at this type of track, he has 26 Top 5s, 40 Top 10s, a 9.0 average finish and 1,076 laps led.
While Custer wasted little time maximizing his Stewart-Haas Racing equipment at the XFINITY level, there was definitely a bit of a feeling out process in his rookie season. Throw in the tougher competition in the Cup Series and a different rules package, and there’s a decent chance that it could take him a while to get comfortable and realize his full potential.
He didn’t exactly struggle at any track type in the XFINITY Series, but compared to his performance at the intermediate tracks, he wasn’t nearly as dominant at many of the short tracks, road courses and superspeedways. In 39 combined starts at these three track types, he managed one win and seven Top 5s.
While it is a little unfair to compare Custer to Suarez since the latter had two years of Cup experience before joining SHR, his numbers at least offer a potential baseline. Suarez finished 2019 with four Top 5s, 11 Top 10s and a 16.4 average finish. His best results came at short tracks, the two-mile ovals and Texas, and Stewart-Haas Racing was fast at these types of track as an organization.
Custer’s immediate impact will be somewhat tied to the progress SHR is able to make as an organization over the offseason. Yes, Kevin Harvick remained an elite performer in 2019, but SHR seemed to struggle as a whole to find consistent speed with the reduced-horsepower, high-downforce package introduced last season.
As I already mentioned, one of Custer’s strengths in the XFINITY Series was capitalizing on fast cars, not necessarily getting more out of car than it has to give. If Stewart-Haas Racing is fielding some of the faster cars on the track, Custer should deliver solid results sooner rather than later. If SHR is searching for week-to-week speed again in 2020, Custer could be in for a rollercoaster of a rookie season.
In the end, I think there will be a bit of an adjustment period for Custer, which will limit his ceiling for at least the first half of the year. The good news is that he is going to have a chance to contend for Top 20s on a weekly basis based on equipment alone, and I think he is more than capable of mirroring, if not slightly exceeding, the numbers Suarez put up in the No, 41 last season when all is said and done.
The bottom line is that Custer is going to help fantasy owners in season-long contests, but he will best suited for formats that allow weekly lineup adjustments, giving you the option to take a wait-and-see approach with him early and to target him at specific tracks after that.
If you play the Driver Group Game, Custer is a driver who you may want to save for later in the year in order to maximize his value. At the DFS sites, he is going to need to generate his points from place differential and finishing position, not dominator points, so his value is going to fluctuate from one race to the next.