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Signs of progress for Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing

Kyle Larson passes Daniel Suarez and holds off a late charge from Austin Dillon to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway.

Through the first two races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, 19 different drivers have earned at least one top-10 finish.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer is not one of them. But he’s not sweating over it as the series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It helps that he’s coming off a good weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Custer finished 11th and earned his first stage points of the season in Sunday’s Cup race. He also won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in triple overtime.

Things are looking up from a team perspective, too.

Two of Custer’s teammates, Chase Briscoe (fifth) and Aric Almirola (seventh), are in the top 10 in Cup points. Almirola is the only driver to earn top-10 finishes in both races (fifth at the Daytona 500, sixth at Auto Club). Kevin Harvick also chipped in his first top 10 of 2022 at Auto Club, placing seventh.

Going back to 2021, Almirola didn’t get his first top 10 until the ninth race that season (sixth at Richmond); Custer got his first top 10 the next week at Talladega (tenth); and Briscoe had to wait for his first top 10 until race 14 at Circuit of the Americas (sixth). Harvick had five top 10s in the first six races.

It’s early days in the season and with the new Next Gen car. But Custer’s happy for the improved performance from SHR across the board.

“I think right now we’ve done a really solid job,” Custer said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “We’ve been competitive at every single race so far.

“Are we where we want to be? Are we leading a bunch of laps and up front? I think we still have a little bit of room to grow, but the guys have done a great job over the offseason working hard on this car and this is our year to rebound.

“We’re working as hard as we can to try and get our cars back up front, but it’s been solid so far. I think we have cars that are driving well and we have stuff that we can build on for the rest of the year.”

Another bumpy ride

Next up: Las Vegas and the Next Gen’s first event on a traditional mile-and-a-half oval - continuing the diverse array of tracks that the new car has already faced.

From Custer’s point of view, Las Vegas is in a state of being “really in the middle” as its asphalt continues to wear out but retains its high-speed nature.

Like Auto Club, Custer expects to see a fair share of teams push set-ups aggressively at Las Vegas.

How that plays with the track’s notable bumps in Turns 1 and 2 is the question.

“You’re gonna change your setup around a little bit (with the Next Gen car), but I think the biggest thing, at least for us, is how you’re going to navigate the bumps in one and two,” Custer said.

“They’re some of the biggest bumps that we have on the schedule. At Fontana, we saw the problems people had over the bumps in (Turns) 3 and 4, so it’s gonna be a matter of how far you can push it through those bumps and how your car is handling through that.”

Don’t get cocky

Auto Club saw numerous spins and crashes throughout the weekend as drivers and teams continued to dial in their Next Gen cars.

Regarding their drivability, Custer admitted that “you probably don’t have the side force that you want in the car to really have the confidence that you want.” But he also noted that simply put the onus on the driver to find the limit and not go over it.

Right now, everybody’s in that game. So while Custer feels good after Auto Club, he and his team aren’t thinking like they’re close to solving the Next Gen car.

“You’ve just got to take it one week at a time,” he said. “You kind of have to live in the moment, I guess. Our team did a great job in Fontana. Our pit crew was awesome and you just have to keep building on that.

“Obviously, things are gonna change week to week and you have to use your resources and teammates and everything around you to try and understand this car better. But I think we’re off to a good start and we’ve got to just keep building on it.”