Saturday, 18 January 2020

NASCAR Cup Series: Who is on the hot seat at Stewart-Haas Racing? – Beyond the Flag

NASCAR Cup Series: Who is on the hot seat at Stewart-Haas Racing? – Beyond the Flag
27 Jul

With the recent rise of Cole Custer in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which Stewart-Haas Racing driver should be worried about losing his Cup Series ride?

Stewart-Haas Racing superstar Cole Custer is in the midst of a breakout season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series after he advanced to the Championship 4 last season with one victory but failed to come away with the championship.

Through the first 18 races of the 33-race 2019 season, Custer is tied atop the Xfinity Series wins list with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell with five after entering the season with just two career victories to his name.

The 21-year-old Ladera Ranch, California native is one of the “Big 3” along with Bell and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick who have made themselves three of the heavy favorites advance to the Championship 4 once again after doing so last year.

What has been particularly notable about Custer is how he has thrived against Cup Series regulars. He held off Team Penske’s Joey Logano to win the race at Chicagoland Speedway a few weeks ago, and he is still the only driver in the Truck Series or the Xfinity Series to beat Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch this season.

Busch finished in second place behind Custer in the race at Auto Club Speedway in mid-March. Take away this result, and Busch would have five wins in five Truck Series starts and three wins in three Xfinity Series starts so far this season.

It is safe to say that the talk about Custer potentially being promoted to Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cup Series team is completely justifiable, even if it is still only technically classified as a “rumor”.

But in order to do so, he would have to replace one of their four current drivers. Which driver is most on the hot seat?

Half of the team should be eliminated from this discussion, as Kevin Harvick is set to return to the team as the driver of the #4 Ford next year and Aric Almirola is set to return to the team as the driver of the #10 Ford.

But the futures of both Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez are nowhere near as clear, and with Stewart-Haas Racing having changed their driver lineup in some way in each of the last three offseasons, it would be shocking to see both Bowyer driving the #14 Ford and Suarez driving the #41 Ford again next year.

So who is Custer in position to replace?

You could really make a case for either driver. Bowyer is currently above the playoff cut line by 17 points, but he is 17 points ahead of Suarez. If either driver fails to qualify for the playoffs, that will make a Custer Cup Series move even more likely. But don’t rule out him replacing one of them even if they both manage to qualify for the playoffs.

Bowyer is 40 years old, so he likely won’t be driving for much longer anyway. Suarez is only 27 and definitely has more upside than Bowyer, but he is also in his third season driving for a top-tier Cup Series team, his first for Stewart-Haas Racing, searching for not only his first career victory but his first career playoff berth, two things that he very well may not earn this year, either.

Bowyer arrived at Stewart-Haas Racing ahead of the 2017 season searching for his first victory since the 2012 season. He finally got it in the 2018 season at Martinsville Speedway, and he added another victory later in the year at Michigan International Speedway.

However, the second of these two wins came down to quite a bit of good fortunate, as he won it after a bold pit strategy simply could not backfire after the skies opened up and dumped rain all over the two-mile track, ending the race under red flag conditions.

I’m not going to say this was quite a Justin Haley/Spire Motorsports-level rain upset, but it fits in that category of “drivers who probably wouldn’t have scored upset victories without the rain”. Either way, Bowyer has only one victory in the last seven seasons that you can truly chalk up to him being the best driver in the field.

Suddenly, Suarez’s career-opening 92-race win drought doesn’t look so bad, especially when you consider the fact that it took Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott until their 99th career starts to find victory lane.

Next: Top 10 NASCAR drivers of all-time

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If Cole Custer drives for Stewart-Haas Racing in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, will he do so as the replacement for Clint Bowyer behind the wheel of the #14 Ford, or will he do so as the replacement for Daniel Suarez behind the wheel of the #41 Ford?

If Stewart-Haas Racing retain Bowyer or Suarez for the 2020 season and replace the other driver with Custer to make the 2020 season their fourth consecutive season with an offseason driver lineup change, it is hard to see them parting ways with Suarez and retaining Bowyer.



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