Following a seven-month regular-season voyage and an eventful regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field is set as 16 competitors will compete for this year’s Cup title in a 10-race postseason stretch, beginning next weekend at Darlington Raceway in September. Of the 16 competitors that have qualified for the Playoffs, one competitor is also celebrating a major achievement to this season. That competitor is Cole Custer, who was named this year’s Cup Rookie-of-the-Year recipient.
The 22-year-old native from Ladera Ranch, California, wrapped up the title by being the only rookie Cup candidate of this season to make the Playoffs and since he will emerge as the highest-finishing rookie candidate in the standings. The Cup Rookie-of-the-Year Award marks the first time Custer has achieved the award within NASCAR’s three major division series after he came into this season competing against fellow Truck and Xfinity Series competitors Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole. Quin Houff was also part of this year’s rookie battle.
Following a productive path through NASCAR’s touring series, including finishing the 2018 and 2019 Xfinity Series seasons as the championship runner-up behind Reddick, Custer was promoted to a full-time driving role in the 2020 Cup Series season and in the No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing led by veteran crew chief Mike Shiplett. By then, Custer had already made three previous starts in NASCAR’s premier series in 2018. In addition, Reddick, Bell, Nemechek, Poole and Houff were also set to compete for the first time in the Cup circuit as full-time competitors.
For the first 15 races of his rookie season, Custer achieved one top-10 result (ninth place at Phoenix Raceway in March) and was ranked in 26th place in the regular-season standings. The turning point for Custer and his team came the following race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, where Custer notched his first top-five career result in fifth place. The following race at Kentucky Speedway, he made a bold four-wide move against teammate Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney on the final lap to storm to his first Cup career victory in his 20th series start. Custer’s victory at Kentucky guaranteed himself a spot in this year’s Playoffs.
For the remaining nine regular-season events, Custer went on to record three additional top-10 results while Reddick, Bell, Nemechek, Poole and Houff were unable to record a win to make the Playoffs and challenge Custer for the rookie title through the season finale at Phoenix in November.
With his accomplishment, Custer is the sixth competitor from the NASCAR Next initiative to earn the Cup Rookie-of-the-Year Award, an accomplishment that has also been made by Kyle Larson, Brett Moffitt, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and William Byron. He also became the first competitor to achieve the Cup Rookie-of-the-Year title while driving for Stewart-Haas Racing as his three SHR teammates (Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick) have also made this year’s Playoffs.
Based on his victory at Kentucky and points he earned throughout the 26-race regular-season stretch, Custer will start the Playoffs ranked in a three-way tie with teammate Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon for 10th place in the standings with 2,005 points. He and Matt DiBenedetto are the lone newcomers to qualify for the Cup Playoffs as title contenders.
Custer’s first run to a Cup championship in the Playoffs will begin on Sunday, September 6, at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500, which will occur at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.