The 2020 rookie class may be one of the most talented fantasy players have seen in quite some time and they should be prepared to start the first year drivers on a number of occasions throughout the season.
Of the five contenders, Cole Custer will enter with the most fully-rounded team.
In 2019, Stewart-Haas Racing was a sleeping giant. All four drivers struggled on occasion, including Kevin Harvick who finally mounted a charge at the end of the season and propelled the No. 4 into the Championship 4. Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, and Daniel Suarez each had flashes of greatness while lacking the overall reliability to make them consistently fantasy relevant.
Suarez was low hanging fruit, so when it came time to promote Custer from the Xfinity series, the lack of a long-term contact with that driver made him easy pickings. The biggest drawback for Custer will be that he enters a team that needs to get rid of their peaks and valleys – and a freshman driver may lack the vocabulary and confidence to instruct his team on what needs to be changed during a race weekend.
Custer also has the least seniority at SHR. In this multi-car organization assets need to be allocated among four very strong personalities and it remains to be seen if the newest member can yell loudly enough to be heard.
The No. 41 team was able to string three top-10s together only once in 2019. That came from the spring Martinsville race though Bristol. The streak was highlighted by a third in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas. They scored back-to-back top-10s on two other occasions with a pair at Pocono/Michigan in June and Michigan/Bristol in August.
Suarez brought this car into the top 10 on 11 occasions in 36 races, but all too often there were long gaps between those successes. The speed was there, however. The No. 41 had 14 top-10 qualification efforts, but something often went awry during the race. Six of those top-10 starts ended outside the top 15; three of them were outside the top 20.
If Custer can avoid the temptation to overdrive and he does not step over the line, the overall average finish for the No. 41 could be much better than this car experienced in 2019 – simply by elevating the mid-pack results and eluding as many sub-30th-place finishes.
That is a tall order for a first-year driver – but it is achievable. Custer has earned top-10s in 66.9% of his starts in the Xfinity and Truck series with top-fives in 32.9% of those starts. That took a combination of discipline and aggression that will serve him well in his Cup career.
Custer also has a little experience in the Cup series. He made three starts in Rick Ware’s No. 51 in 2018 and finished about as well as that team could be expected. He had results of 25th or 26th at Las Vegas, Pocono, and Richmond.
He’s shown versatility that can also be seen in his list of Xfinity victories. They include wins on the short track of Richmond and the rough surfaces of Darlington and Dover. Custer has been at his best on unrestricted, intermediate speedways, however, with victories at Homestead, Texas, Auto Club, Chicagoland, and Kentucky.
Considering how well the No. 41 team ran at Michigan last year with a sweep of the top five, fantasy owners should bookmark those two races and watch Custer closely on the 2-mile tracks. Custer’s former win at Auto Club and Suarez’s top-15 there in 2019 will make that another interesting chance to evaluate the potential of this rookie contender.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Wins: 9 (8.6%)
Top-5s: 39 (37.5% )
Top-10s: 71 (68.3%)
Poles: 12 (11.5%)
Wins: 2 (4.7%)
Top-5s: 9 (21.4%)
Top-10s: 24 (57.1%)
Poles: 5 (11.9%)