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2-Headed Monster: Cole Custer or Ryan Preece – Who Should Drive the No. 41 car in 2023?

While there are only a couple of questions out there regarding the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series silly season, an interesting development happened last week when Gene Haas revealed that Cole Custer‘s seat may not be concrete as far as the No. 41 car is concerned for 2023.

While on the grid at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16 Haas mentioned that there are two options to drive the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Ford in 2023.

Haas’ comments were certainly interesting because Cole Custer’s dad, Joe Custer, is Gene’s right hand man when it comes to the organization. However, his co-owner wants to go in a different direction. While the team is not yet certain on who will drive the car next season, we have Anthony Damcott and Stephen Stumpf giving their thoughts on who they would hire to drive the No. 41 car in 2023.

Keep Custer in the No. 41, give Preece a full-time Xfinity Series gig with SHR

The elephant in the room is that Cole Custer has been achieving well below expectations in his third Cup Series season. While Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick — fellow drivers from the 2020 rookie class — have won multiple races this season, Custer only has three top 10s. He currently sits 26th in points, which is the same as his finish in 2021.

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However, Stewart-Haas Racing has been on a downturn. The team has only won four races since the start of 2021, a far cry from the nine that Kevin Harvick alone won in 2020. Custer has still been the weakest of the four, but it’s an explanation for why his 2020 rookie season has appeared as his best so far.

But even if Custer were to be replaced, there aren’t many options available. The biggest name available for 2023 was Kyle Busch, but SHR lost out to Richard Childress Racing for his services. A disappointing miss when considering that Harvick was open to having his former rival as a teammate.

As of late October, Front Row Motorsports, Wood Brothers Racing, Live Fast Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car (which is almost certainly going to Ty Gibbs) have yet to announce their 2023 lineups. Michael McDowell would potentially be worth pursuing after his career year at FRM, but even then, the expectation is for all those teams to look the same next year.

That means that any replacements for Custer would have to come from a lower series, which is why Ryan Preece has Tony Stewart‘s endorsement. Under the Ford umbrella, Riley Herbst and Hailie Deegan are really the only other names available, and neither one is close to being ready for Cup.

Preece has impressed in his stint in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for David Gilliland Racing, as he has scored two wins at Nashville Superspeedway and finished top 11 in all 12 of his starts.

Unlike many of his peers in the lower series, however, Preece is not an unknown commodity in Cup. He raced for JTG Daugherty Racing between 2019 and 2021, and while he scored nine top 10s, he was largely overshadowed by teammates Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Like Custer, his best points finish was 26th in 2019, a year where only 30 points-paying drivers competed in every race.

Given Preece’s impressive results in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Truck Series, SHR would be best served by giving him a full-time Xfinity ride in 2023. Preece’s results in Xfinity and Trucks are impressive, but he only has a combined 74 starts between the two since 2013. That number accounts for just one full-time Xfinity season in 2016.

With only one Xfinity car for SHR, a second car for Preece would help build its program for the future by preparing other drivers down the road for Cup. Likewise, a full-time season in SHR Xfinity equipment would make Preece an instant contender, and it would be a great momentum builder for a potential Cup ride with SHR in 2024.

While Preece will be 33 at the start of the 2024 season, that shouldn’t be an issue; David Reutimann was a Cup rookie at 37 years old while Ross Chastain has had a breakout season at age 29.

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Keeping both around would also give SHR options for the 2024 season. It appears that Harvick will not return after the end of his contract in 2023 and giving both drivers a seat on the team would give SHR flexibility in starting the post-Harvick era.

As for Custer, give him one more year in Cup. If he continues to put up the same results in the No. 41 car, SHR should move Preece up to Cup, Custer down to Xfinity and pursue another driver for the No. 4 if Harvick decides to call it a career. – Stephen Stumpf

It’s Ryan Preece’s Time

It’s time to state the obvious — Stewart-Haas Racing would not have signed Ryan Preece as a reserve driver if the team didn’t think he would be able to fill a Cup seat in the near future.

And it’s time that he gets his shot.

After Aric Almirola decided not to retire, Preece — who was the leading candidate for the ride — was left out to dry. While Harvick seems primed to retire after the 2023 season, Preece shouldn’t have to wait until 2024 to be considered. Especially when Custer has underperformed, really, since he got the seat back in 2020.

Aside from one singular win at Kentucky Speedway in 2020 (which guaranteed him Rookie of the Year by default), Custer has largely not lived up to expectations set for him after moving up to the Cup Series following some dominant seasons in the Xfinity Series. His father, Joe Custer, is the president of Stewart-Haas Racing, which might be part of the reason he’s had his ride for as long as he has.

Custer’s top-10 finish at the summer Atlanta Motor Speedway race this year was his first top-10 in over a year and is a part of only has 12 top-10s in 93 starts. Each of his three teammates have made the playoffs at least once over the last two years, with Harvick and Chase Briscoe making this year’s edition of the playoffs. Custer, however, rides a dismal 26th-place in points currently, the same place he finished in the 2021 points standings.

If once was a fluke, twice is a pattern, and it’s time for a change in the No. 41.

Preece has proven himself in the lower series in an attempt to revive his Cup Series career. He’s racked up two wins in the Camping World Truck Series in two years (both at Nashville Superspeedway) and has been a threat in every one of his starts in the series. He has also run well in his select Xfinity Series starts for B.J. McLeod Motorsports this season.

It’s clear that Preece is the way to go for 2023. Custer’s performance will either stagnate at mid pack or will continue to decline the longer he’s in the ride without some more development. Preece was released from his former Cup ride after being outperformed by his teammate at JTG Daugherty Racing and is in the midst of a comeback. Maybe that’s the exact thing what Custer needs too.

Custer won earlier this year in the Xfinity Series at Auto Club Speedway with SS-Green Light Racing. He could do what Preece is doing now and find himself back in a Cup ride sooner rather than later. As mentioned earlier, Harvick and Almirola are on the way out within the next two seasons more than likely, which means Custer could find himself back in the Cup Series in just two years’ time. Maybe even with the same team — just a different car number.

But until then, Preece deserves a chance to return the No. 41 to the front of the field consistently. -Anthony Damcott

About the author

Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021 and currently pens the weekly columns 4 Burning Questions and Stat Sheet. He also contributes to Frontstretch with social media, editing and rotating commentary while occasionally serving as an on-site reporter.  A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Charlie

Agree Custer has been a disappointment. Here is a thought, so coming from me it will never happen. BUT, Custer steps out of the car and begins training for a major management role at Stewart Haas Racing. Put Preece in the car. See if funding is available for a second Xfinity entry and put Deegan in it.
Maybe, since I bet Preece is represented by Harvick’s Management Group, Kevin may stay around through 2024. Then pull a “Hendrick,” and replace jAric Almirola and Harvick at the same time.
But everyone please keep in mind, Gene Haas writes the checks. It will ultimately be he, along with Joe Custer, making the final decision.
Interesting times.

tcfromaz

Put Ryan in so he shuts up.

Tom B

Put a woman in the 41 under TITLE IX authority or a minority under AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. NA$CAR has to be Politically Correct.

DANNY

tom that is funnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnny but true

Carl D.

I’m with Stumpf. With Harvick leaving after next year, that gives Preece with a cup ride in 2024 while giving Custer another year to prove his worth.

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