● After narrowly missing a top-10 finish in his second career Daytona 500 last weekend, 23-year-old Cole Custer, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, welcomes a new primary sponsor as he hits the 14-turn, 3.61-mile road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in the No. 41 Dixie Vodka Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253.
● The Daytona road-course race is the first of a ground-breaking seven NASCAR Cup Series races to be held on road courses in 2021. From 1988 to 2017, there were only two road courses on the schedule – Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. The Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Roval was added in 2018, giving the series just three road-course venues. The initial 2021 schedule doubled that tally, with Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course all being added. And when COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the series’ stop at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the Daytona road course was put in its place.
● Sunday’s race marks Custer’s second points-paying and third overall start on the Daytona road course. He finished 22nd in the Cup Series’ first-ever road-course race at Daytona last August, which also happened to be the native of Ladera Ranch, California’s first career Cup Series road course start. In last week’s non-points Busch Clash on the Daytona road course, Custer had a strong run the first half of the race, driving deep into the top-10 on two occasions. But, on lap 22 of the 35-lap event, he could not refire his Mustang after serving a self-imposed stop-and-go penalty for missing the backstraight chicane, dropping him three laps off the pace while his car was towed back to the pits for repairs. He finished 20th.
● Custer also 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 Majeskiand Scott Maxwell.Custer’s most recent points-paying Cup Series start on a road course resulted in his ninth-place run on the Charlotte Roval last October.
● Custer’s most recent points-paying Cup Series start on a road course resulted in his ninth-place run on the Charlotte Roval last October.
● In his 11 road-course outings in the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 2017 through 2019, Custer finished outside the top-10 just once with a best result of fourth in the 2018 race at Road America.
● Custer also has top-10s in all three of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series outings on road courses, all three occurring at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. His best was his most recent, a second-place run from the pole with a race-high 39 laps led in the No. 00 JR Motorsports entry in 2016. He also made three starts apiece on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen in NASCAR K&N Pro Series competition, with best finishes of third in the 2016 East Series race at Watkins Glen after having qualified on the pole there the previous year, and fourth in the 2019 West Series race at Sonoma.
● Season 1 of the new Netflix series “The Crew,” the NASCAR-themed comedy starring Kevin James as an old-school crew chief, debuted this week on the streaming channel, and Custer is one of three drivers who filmed cameo appearances for the show’s inaugural season. Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon are the others, and the cameo lineup also includes FOX NASCAR pit reporter Jamie Little. There are 10 episodes now available for streaming.
● The largest premium craft vodka produced in the Southeast, Charleston, South Carolina-based Dixie Vodka is the Official Vodka of Stewart-Haas Racing and is Custer’s primary sponsor for two NASCAR Cup Series races in 2021. In addition to this weekend on the Daytona road course, Custer will pilot the No. 41 Dixie Vodka Ford Mustang June 20 at Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway. For all other races, Dixie Vodka is an associate sponsor on the No. 41 Ford. The brand also is title sponsor of next week’s Dixie Vodka 400 Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and is the Official Vodka of NASCAR. Launched in 2014 by Grain & Barrel Spirits, Dixie Vodka includes six unique expressions, all representing the best of Southern flavor and craftsmanship. Since its debut, Dixie Vodka has been one of the most awarded vodkas in the United States, including Dixie Black Pepper being crowned the top-flavored vodka in the world at the globally recognized San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019, and Dixie Citrus being named one of the Top 100 Spirits of 2020 by Wine Enthusiast magazine.
What kind of an adjustment is it for a driver to go from the Daytona 500 on the superspeedway oval to this weekend’s race on the Daytona road course?
“It’s completely different from speedway racing. You’re going from wide open around the whole racetrack to turning left and right and shifting gears and braking hard and it’s definitely a totally different style. It’s going to be a huge mind reset going into this weekend. We were able to get a little bit of practice (on the road course) in the Busch Clash, so hopefully we can take advantage of those notes going into this weekend.”
What did you learn in the Busch Clash last week?
“Every single team tried something different in that race, just because it’s one of the few times we get so-called practice like that and you have to take advantage of it. I think all of us in our Stewart-Haas organization learned and tried a bunch of different things and we’re going to bring the best things we can back to this race. I think we have some really good ideas. I think we were solid in the Busch Clash. It’s just a matter of getting my Dixie Vodka Ford that little bit better so we can go out and run for a win.”
What do you think about all the added road courses on the schedule this year?
“I think the road courses are a great change. We put on great racing, I think, at the road courses. There’s a lot of beating and banging and I think it’s great for the fans. So, as a driver, we all look forward to them, and it’s a great change that we made this year. We’re gaining more road courses, and every single race matters, every single point matters, so we’re putting so much more emphasis on the road-course races. We’ve had to build new cars and we’re trying and really focus in on what we have to do to make our cars better on the road courses because it makes up so much more of the schedule, trying to figure out how to make more speed at these places.”
You drove in the Cup Series’ first-ever race on the Daytona road course last August. And you drove in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge races during the 2018 and 2019 Rolex 24 weekends on that layout. How much did that help your race last August? Between the IMSA experience and your two Cup Series races on the road course, how will that help this weekend?
“It definitely helped out a ton to be able to run that IMSA car and get the laps on the road course before the Cup race. It probably gave me a little bit of a leg up on some of the guys. It was great to able to run the race there last year in the Cup car, because it’s really important to try and use those notes from last time and figure out what I can do better as a driver and also what we can do to the car to gain more speed. So we definitely have some really good ideas going into this race, and I think we learned even more in the Busch Clash, and that was one week back. It’s just a matter of trying to put all those notes together and making it the best race that we can.”
You narrowly missed a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 last year. Looking back, how was that for you and the team?
“It was exciting, for sure. That race, obviously we had a lot of wrecks. We pretty much bookended it from lap 15 to the last lap. We just tried to play it safe and make sure we made it to the end. People get so aggressive in those races, just pushing and shoving and giving it all they can to try and win the Daytona 500, and eventually it’s kind of a ticking time bomb and things kind of come to an end there.”
Now that you’ve got a year behind you in the Cup Series, looking back, how big of a change was it for you to make the move from Xfinity to Cup?
“There’s just so much more competition. That’s the biggest thing. You go from 10 guys who can win in the Xfinity Series to 25 in the Cup Series. Your bad days are a lot worse, or when you get behind in a race, you’re not dropping to 10th, you’re dropping to 25th, and it’s not easy to get back up into the top-10. It makes things a lot harder, so it’s a matter of not making those mistakes that put you in the back of the field.”
You’re not the rookie on the team, anymore, but SHR has a new rookie in Chase Briscoe this year. How are you two working together to try and navigate the relative “newness” of competing in the Cup Series?
“It’s been great. Chase and I have been friends for a while and that helps the communication a lot, being able to talk with each other whenever we can and kind of ask each other questions and bounce ideas off each other. It makes for some great stuff and I think we can definitely make some gains as we go through this year and try and figure out ways we can make not only ourselves but our teams better.”
Season one of Netflix’s new series “The Crew” debuted this week, and you were among the drivers who made cameo appearances on the show. How was that experience for you?
“It was interesting. Obviously, I’m not an actor, so it was pretty nerve-racking, for sure. Getting to work with people like Kevin James is pretty unreal and I didn’t know what to expect, honestly. It’s just amazing just how good those people are at their profession. A lot of the things they say off-script is just insane. It was definitely something I’ll never forget and I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to do it. I think it’s going to be a good show. It’s going to have some comedy in it and kind of relate to everything we do in the sport. The whole thing lasted maybe four or five hours, it wasn’t crazy. My portion was only one scene, so I think it was cool to do and kind of get my feet wet in it.”
Talk about your newest sponsor Dixie Vodka, as this will be the brand’s first race as primary sponsor in the Cup Series.
“I’m genuinely excited about my new partnership with Dixie Vodka. Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series is a privilege and success doesn’t come easily. You have to work hard for it, and when you taste success, you’re ready to celebrate. I’ve got a great partner in Dixie Vodka that knows how to celebrate. The people behind the brand have worked incredibly hard to make Dixie Vodka the largest premium craft vodka produced in the Southeast. I look forward to raising a glass with them as we enjoy more success together in 2021.”