• Cole Custer is locked and loaded for his third Championship 4 appearance in his fourth fulltime NASCAR Xfinity Series season Saturday at Phoenix Raceway. To say the 25-year-old from Ladera Ranch, California, backed his way into this year’s Championship 4 can be taken literally, but not necessarily figuratively as he and the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang team for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) mounted a relatively strong run through this year’s Xfinity Series Playoffs. In overtime at last weekend’s Round of 8 finale at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Custer appeared on the brink of elimination as fellow playoff contendersSheldon Creed and Austin Hill were running at the front of the field on the final lap. Mayhem ensued as the they were headed to the checkered flag, and Custer was one of several drivers caught up in the multicar accident. But he smartly threw his racecar into reverse and crossed the finish line backward to secure his spot in the Championship 4 by a seven-point margin ahead of fifth-place Hill. Custer drove to runner-up finishes in each of his previous Championship 4 appearances in 2018 and 2019, when the season finale took place at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He looks to go one better this weekend to take home his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship after 200 laps around Phoenix’s desert mile oval.
• Custer’s journey to the Championship 4 was full of highs and lows. After returning to fulltime Xfinity Series competition in 2023, he struggled to find speed in the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang at the outset of the season. He wouldn’t get his first top-five finish until the season’s seventh race April 1 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, but from there, the No. 00 team became a force to be reckoned with. Custer drove to his first win June 3 at Portland (Ore.) International Raceway, and his second on July 1 in the inaugural Chicago Street Race. With new crew chief Jonathan Toney on the pit box and Custer behind the wheel, the No. 00 team has picked up 13 top-fives this season and has led 490 laps. While this is Toney’s first run as crew chief for the Xfinity Series championship, he has experience on a title-winning team. He was the lead engineer during SHR co-owner Tony Stewart’s 2011 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
• Saturday’s season finale will be Custer’s eighth Xfinity Series start at Phoenix. After a 21st-place finish in his debut at the track in March 2017, he never finished worse than 12th in his next six Xfinity Series starts there, highlighted by a second-place result in the November 2019 race. When he and the series last visited the track in March, Custer earned his first pole of the season and ran in the top-10 for a majority of the race before finishing 12th. Custer also has 12 NASCAR starts outside of the Xfinity Series at Phoenix – six in the Cup Series with a best finish of ninth in March 2020, three in the Truck Series with a best finish of third in November 2014, and three in the K&N Pro Series West. His victory from the pole in March 2014, when he led a race-high 62 of 80 laps, was the best of his three K&N Pro Series West outings, with finishes of third and sixth in the other two.
• Riley Herbst, driver of the No. 98 Monster Energy Ford Mustang for SHR, hopes to keep the momentum rolling in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship event at Phoenix Raceway. He’s fresh off a fourth-place result after a chaotic ending to the penultimate race last Saturday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It was Herbst’s fourth consecutive top-five, the longest such streak of his career, and his ninth top-five of the season, surpassing his previous career high of eight top-fives last season. Like Custer, Herbst’s season has been full of highs and lows. While he started strong with six top-10s in the opening six races, a streak of tough luck over the summer months led to his narrowly missing the Xfinity SeriesPlayoffs. But a determined Herbst performed like a playoff contender nonetheless in the past six races, which featured his first career Xfinity Series win Oct. 14 at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway among his four consecutive top-fives and five top-10s. Herbst also led his first NASCAR Cup Series laps Oct. 1 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway over the past six race weekends. He heads into the final race of 2023 at the desert mile oval where he finished fourth in March.
• Saturday’s race will mark Herbst’s ninth career Xfinity Series start at Phoenix, which has proven to be one of his better tracks. After an early race accident in his series debut there in November 2019, Herbst finished 11th or better in his next four Phoenix outings, highlighted by fourth-place finishes in both the March and November 2021 events. He earned a seventh-place finish in last November’s season finale to go with his aforementioned fourth-place finish in March. Outside the Xfinity Series at Phoenix, Herbst finished 10th in his lone NASCAR K&N Pro Series West start at the track in November 2019, and 15th in his lone NASCAR Truck Series start there in November 2018.
• Herbst should feel right at home at the desert mile in Arizona. Being a third-generation racer from Las Vegas, he’s taken his family name from the Desert Southwest to the asphalt tracks of NASCAR. Herbst began racing go-karts up and down the West Coast at age 5. He soon followed in his family’s footsteps in 2006 when he transitioned to off-road racing, where his grandfather Jerry, his dad Troy, and his uncles Tim and Ed, all became Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame inductees after their numerous championship-winning campaigns. But by age 10, Herbst sought a return to pavement, which began with Legends cars before transitioning to Speed Trucks, Super Late Models, the K&N Series, NASCAR Trucks, and now the Xfinity Series. He’ll step back to his family roots during the offseason when he pilots the Terrible Herbst Motorsports entry in the 56th running of the Baja 1000 Nov. 13-18. He’s participated in the iconic off-road event in the previous two offseasons, earning a best finish of third in last year’s event.
After a wild finish at Martinsville that resulted in you crossing the finish line driving in reverse, you have a shot at the championship at Phoenix. Talk about the journey to get there after the slow start to the 2023 season and what you expect in the championship race.
“I think this year has been super rewarding in a lot of ways. You can see how much better our team has gotten through the year. At the start of the season, we just weren’t getting the finishes that we wanted, and we weren’t putting races together how we wanted to. By halfway through the year, it seemed like we were a completely different team. We were running up front and getting those strong finishes. We were competing for wins every single weekend. It was just really cool to be a part of that. I’m proud of how far the No. 00 Haas Automation team has come this year. With the championship race, I think it’s one of those things where it comes down to the last run. The stages don’t matter. It’s all about that last run and seeing what you’ve got. So, there’s a lot of preparation during the week prior to the race, and it honestly all leads to those last laps where you see what you can do as a team. That’ll be what decides the championship.”
Phoenix marks the end of the 2023 season with one final race to determine a champion. After finishing runner-up twice in your previous two Champoinship 4 appearances, what would it mean to come back to the Xfinity Series and win the title?
“Winning a championship is definitely a career-defining moment. I think after finishing second twice and being so close, it’s everything that we want. It was our whole goal coming into this year because we believed that we could be the team to beat. SHR has been so close to that driver championship in the Xfinity Series before, and to be the first one to get it would mean a lot. That’s what our whole goal is. Going to try to win this is all a driver ever dreams of since we were kids. It’s pretty much championship or bust.”
You’ve reached the final race of the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season. Despite some lows in the season, you also enjoyed some career highs, including your first career win in the series and recording your most top-fives in a single season. What have you learned this year that you can carry over into the next season?
“There’s a ton that I can carry over to next season. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a driver this year, and I think that’s showed on track. I’ve come so far from when I first set foot in SHR in 2021. This organization has helped me learn and mature as a driver. They’ve stuck with me through some tough times, and I’m so grateful for that. We had some lows this season, and ultimately didn’t make the playoffs. It stung. I can’t deny that. Still, Davin (Restivo, crew chief) and the No. 98 Monster Energy team told me to keep my head up. Four weeks later, we were parked in victory lane in my hometown. We never gave up, and I think that’s something that can translate over to next year. You’re going to have rough patches in the season, but hard work will always pay off in the end. Thankful for this team and to continue the journey next year.”
Phoenix is such a unique racetrack, but you have a strong history there. How do you tackle it as a driver?
“I’m excited to get to Phoenix. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. For a driver, it’s one of the more unique tracks because of how different each end of the track is. You have to approach both so differently, but there are a lot of opportunities to show a lot of speed and get an advantage on your competitors. We talk about the dogleg a lot, but you see a lot of guys go down there to pass. It’s always a fun race when we go there, so hopefully that continues and we can end the season on a high note with another strong finish.”