Stewart-Haas Racing: Sonoma NXS Advance (Cole Custer | Riley Herbst)

Stewart-Haas Racing

•  “Stone” Cole Custer, who is known for his trademark beer-smashing victory celebrations, will gladly trade the beer for one of Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway’s signature wine toasts in victory lane this weekend as he heads to Wine Country for Saturday’s Zip Buy Now, Pay Later 250. The Ladera Ranch, California native will return to his home state for the first time this season after welcoming nearly 100 family members to the track for last weekend’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Portland (Ore.) International Raceway. Custer started fourth for the 75-lap event at Portland and ran in the top-10 for a majority of the race, picking up a total of 13 points through his finishes in the opening two stages. While some pit stop issues put him back in thefield as the race was nearing its end, Custer was able to fight his way back into the top-10 in the closing laps. His Ford Mustang crossed the finish line sixth, marking his 10th top-10 of the 2024 season, all coming in the last 11 races. While he is still searching for his first win of the season, Custer has had his eye on the back-to-back road-course events at Portland and Sonoma after scoring his first win of 2023 at Portland.

•  Saturday’s Zip Buy Now, Pay Later 250 will mark the second time that Custer will race at Sonoma in the Xfinity Series. Custer can still claim a leg up on his fellow fulltime competitors at the 1.99-mile, 10-turn circuit though with two NASCAR Cup Series starts there, three in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, and one in the ARCA Menards Series West. The 26-year-old driver earned a best Cup Series finish of 20th in June 2021. His best K&N Series finish was fourth in June 2019, while he earned an 18th-place result in his lone ARCA start. In his first Xfinity Series start there last June, Custer finished sixth after rebounding from a 26th-place qualifying effort.

•  Leaving Portland last Saturday, the Xfinity Series saw a new points leader – Cole Custer. Despite having yet to score his first win of the season, the driver of the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang Dark Horse has used his consistency, strong runs, and stage points to climb to the top of the standings for the first time since he won the 2023 Xfinity Series championship in November. He has an 18-point advantage over second-place Austin Hill. With 13 races to go until the playoffs begin Sept. 28 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Custer is currently seventh in the playoff standings, highest among winless drivers and 167 points above the top-12 cutline. With the mantra of “Win and you’re in,” Custer and the team would like nothing more than to score a win so the points racing can be put aside. Still, he and the team seem to be in a good position to point their way into the playoffs and snatch not only the regular-season championship trophy, but the 15 valuable playoff points that go with it.

•  Las Vegas native Riley Herbst is excited to stay out on the West Coast for the Xfinity Series’ second of back-to-back road-course weekends, featuring Saturday’s Zip Buy Now, Pay Later 250 at Sonoma. The driver of the No. 98 Monster Energy Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Stewart-Haas Racing showed off more of the speed he’s had all season in last Saturday’s 75-lap event at Portland. After posting the fastest lap in his first-round qualifying group, Herbst went on to grab the third spot in final qualifying. At the drop of the green flag, Herbst wasted no time passing front-row starters Sam Mayer and Shane Van Gisbergen in the first turn. He held the lead for the first 15 laps – his first career laps led at Portland – before Justin Allgaier got by him. Herbst finished second in Stage 1 to earn nine bonus points, then finished seventh in Stage 2 to earn an additional four bonus points. While several spins and issues put him back in the pack in the final stage, Herbst showed his perseverance and drove his way up to 10th place by the checkered flag. It was his fifth top-10 of the season and his first at Portland. He looks to carry that momentum into this weekend’s outing in Wine Country.

•  Saturday’s race at Sonoma will be Herbst’s second at the track in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In the series’ inaugural race last season, he rebounded from his 23rd-place qualifying effort to finish 15th. While the series has only visited the 1.99-mile, 10-turn road course just once, Herbst has two starts there in other series – one in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and one in the ARCA Menards Series West. His K&N start came in June 2016 at the age of 17, when Herbst started 10th and finished the 64-lap race fifth in the No. 19 car for owner Bill McAnally. During last year’s inaugural Xfinity Series race weekend, Herbst added some extra seat time in the ARCA race, qualifying sixth for the 64-lap race and running in the top-five for a majority of it. He finished third behind runner-up Sammy Smith and race-winner Ryan Preece.

•  Knowing the summer months of the Xfinity Series schedule can make or break a driver and team’s chances of locking in a spot in the playoffs, Herbst and the No. 98 Monster Energy team will be highly focused on the championship picture. After just barely missing the top-12 cutoff last season, Herbst is on a mission for redemption as he heads into the final 13 races of the regular season, many of which he struggled at last season. His 10th-place finish at Portland last weekend bested by far his 32nd-place finish there in 2023. Herbst heads to Sonoma seventh in the driver standings, just two points behind sixth-place A.J. Allmendinger, and with a 24-point advantage over eight-place Sheldon Creed. Herbst is ninth in the playoff standings, third-highest of the winless drivers, with a 70-point advantage to the top-12 cutline. To help secure his position in the standings, Herbst has collected a total of 117 stage points throughout the season so far, the third highest among Xfintiy Series regulars, only behind Austin Hill and Allgaier.

Cole Custer, Driver of the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang Dark Horse

Saturday’s race will mark the second Xfinity Series race at Sonoma, but you’ve raced there several other times in the NASCAR Cup Series and the ARCA Menards Series West. Throwing in a curveball this season, however, is the Sonoma repave that happened after last year’s race. What are you expecting for this weekend’s race, given your experience at the track and your overall success on road courses in the past?

“I don’t think anyone knows how this repave will affect the cars. No one has really been on it, yet, to test it out. Thankfully, we get an entire practice session on Friday to try to learn it and get our cars set up just right for Saturday’s race. It’s one of the few times that we get a full practice session throughout the season, so I’m excited. With all that said, Sonoma is now my home track in NASCAR with Auto Club Speedway being taken off the schedule. It’s always fun going back to California to race. On top of that, we’ve had some strong runs at Sonoma in the past. I know we struggled in qualifying last year, but I think you’ll see us riding some momentum from Portland. We’ll have a shot at parking our No. 00 Haas Automation Ford Mustang Dark Horse in victory lane as long as we can stay out of trouble and put together a good race. It’ll be difficult, but I have faith in this team that we can get it done.”

Heading into the summer months, you’ll be faced with the challenge of racing non-stop until the July 20 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a variety of racetracks. Is there a certain style of track that you’re looking forward to more so than the others?

“We really do touch almost every kind of track during this stretch of summer months. We’ll go from back-to-back road courses to a short track, to an intermediate, and then throw in a curveball with the Chicago Street Course, which also drives so much differently from a traditional road course. I can’t say that I’m more excited for one than the other, though. We’ve built a really good notebook in the Xfinity Series at Stewart-Haas for every kind of track, so I’m confident when we roll into each race weekend. You always put more expectations on the races you’ve won before, but it’s also exciting to go back to Iowa after a few years away and we’re going back to the traditional Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. There’s going to be a lot of good races coming up and I know we can be competitors each and every weekend.”

Riley Herbst, Driver of the No. 98 Monster Energy Ford Mustang Dark Horse

You’re heading into your second of back-to-back road courses before you then head to a short track, and then intermediate tracks. Each type of racetrack comes with its own challenges, but which ones are you looking forward to the most this summer?

“As a driver, you obviously have to be ready for whatever type of track is heading your way. Still, I’m definitely excited for Iowa and Nashville coming up. Those have always been fun tracks for me. Iowa was where I got my first Xfinity Series start back in 2018 and I finished sixth. Obviously, there was a lot to learn in that race, but it’s also fun to go back to a place like that when it has that memory. Nashville will be a fun one, too. I’ve been fast there in the past, but last season it was where Davin (Restivo, crew chief) first joined the team. We ended up second and, while we had some bad luck in the summer months, we also learned a lot to help us get my first win later that season at Las Vegas. I think the No. 98 Monster Energy team will be strong competitors at all of the tracks, but those are definitely ones that I’m excited for as a driver.”

While you’ve only been to Sonoma once in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, you do have some experience there in the ARCA Menards Series West, formerly known as the K&N Pro Series West. What did you learn last year in both the ARCA and Xfinity race that you can carry over into Saturday’s race?

“It always helps a lot to have that extra time on the track in other series. Sonoma didn’t quite go our way last year, so it was frustrating. I had a strong day on Friday in the ARCA race, but then we didn’t qualify well in the Xfinity Series and it felt like we were playing catchup all day. Now, we’re heading into that same track, but with a repave. Thankfully we’ll get another full practice session on Friday to help us not only learn the track but get our setup just right. It’ll help me learn and prepare. Full practice sessions are still so rare in NASCAR after the pandemic. While it makes the weekends shorter, it definitely is a struggle for drivers who are just getting to a track and learning it for the first time. I’ve seen us really strive when we have time to get our setup better, so I’m excited for it. I know Sonoma can be a tricky road course, so we’ve been working hard to prepare for it, but we also have a chance to get better in that practice session. We had speed at Portland, so I’m hoping that carries over into Sonoma.”


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