Preece to replace Custer with SHR while Custer moves down to the Xfinity Series, details with my takeaways

Stewart-Haas Racing has promoted Ryan Preece from his reserve driver role with the organization to the NASCAR Cup Series where the 32-year-old racer from Berlin, Connecticut, will drive the team’s No. 41 Ford Mustang beginning in 2023.

Preece has spent 2022 performing simulator work that has benefitted the entire team and its Cup Series driver lineup of Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer. In addition to his simulator work at the Ford Performance Center, Preece has run a mix of races across each of NASCAR’s top-three national touring series – Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck – a schedule punctuated by a Truck Series win from the pole June 24 at Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway, his second straight at the 1.333-mile oval near Music City.

“Ryan Preece has been a real asset to our race team this year as we’ve developed the NextGen car. The time and effort he’s put into our program, combined with his real-world racing experience, earned him this opportunity,” said Tony Stewart, co-owner of SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas.

Custer, who has driven the No. 41 Ford Mustang since his rookie year in 2020 when he delivered a victory at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta in just his 20thcareer Cup Series start, will remain with SHR. Custer will head back to the Xfinity Series, where he is a 10-time race winner, and be a teammate to Riley Herbst, who returns to SHR for a third straight season and his fourth fulltime year in the Xfinity Series.

“Cole Custer has been a part of SHR since 2017 and we’re glad to have him stay with us,” Stewart said. “Cole’s experience will be invaluable to Riley Herbst as he continues his development in the Xfinity Series.”

With wins in the Truck Series and the Xfinity Series, Preece aims to complete the trifecta in 2023 with a Cup Series win behind the wheel of the No. 41 Ford Mustang.

“This is the opportunity I’ve been working for,” Preece said. “Nothing was guaranteed at the start of this year, but I felt like if I put in the time, whether it was in a racecar or in a simulator, that SHR was the place for me. It’s a company built by racers, for racers, and it’s exactly where I want to be.

“I know this season just finished and most people are looking to take a break, but I can’t wait to get going.”

Preece made a name for himself on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour – NASCAR’s oldest division and the only open-wheel series sanctioned by NASCAR. Preece won the Tour championship in 2013 and worked hard to leverage that title into additional opportunities in the Xfinity Series – NASCAR’s stepping-stone division to the elite Cup Series. After spending all of 2016 in a scrappy effort with an underfunded team that delivered a best finish of 10th, Preece mortgaged his house to secure two races with Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in 2017. In equipment finally befitting his talent, Preece finished second in his JGR debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and then won in his very next start at Iowa Speedway in Newton. In his next five Xfinity Series starts, Preece never finished outside of the top-10, a run capped with a second victory in April 2018 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

“Ryan has bet on himself a couple of times in his career and it’s always paid off. Now we’re betting on him,” Stewart said.

“I’ve run some Modified Tour races and it’s a tough series with a lot of talent. Ryan’s Mod Tour championship speaks to his talent, and I think he proved that when he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table and bet on himself by getting those Xfinity Series races with Gibbs. When he finally got the right opportunity, he delivered in a big way.

“Now, Ryan’s got the right opportunity in Cup. We’re proud to have him and look forward to seeing what he can do in our racecars.”

Preece will make his debut in the No. 41 Ford Mustang during the non-points Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Feb. 5 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before kicking off his 36-race slate of points-paying events with the 65th Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Both events will be broadcast live on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Custer Just Needs To Get Confidence Back

Cole Custer moving down to the Xfinity Series is more of just him needing to get his confidence back before he can get rolling again. I mean sometimes, to take an example from the basketball world, you just need to see the ball go through the net again to end a shooting slump. Custer is that way for top 5’s and wins.

Before moving up to the Cup Series on a full-time basis, Custer had 9 wins in 104 career Xfinity Series starts including 39 top 5 finishes and 71 top 10’s. He had never finished worse than 5th in the final standings including a pair of second place finishes in 2018 and again in 2019.

However in Cup, he had 1 win in 111 tries with just two top 5 finishes and 12 top 10’s. He led a combined 29 laps. With points finishes of 16th, 26th and 25th respectively in those three seasons, it was time for him to get his confidence back.

So, moving down to the Xfinity Series doesn’t mean this is the end for Custer in Cup. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I think there’s future plans on moving back up but it is essentially a lot of pressure too because if he doesn’t fare well in the Xfinity Series, then a path to Cup may not be as easy as it can be.

Plan For Preece Clear But Almirola Returning Could Have Mixed It Up

The plan for Ryan Preece was pretty clear. When he was hired as a reserve driver for SHR in January of this past year, it was likely to be in a role that would see him as Aric Almirola’s successor in the No. 10 Ford. However, as the season went on and word became clear that Almirola was mulling coming back, it left Preece high and dry. Then with Chase Briscoe’s success and Kevin Harvick being under contract through the 2023 season, it left Preece’s Cup aspirations down to the 41 car. With Custer continuing to struggle, this made the most sense to keep his Cup plans going but instead of the 10 car, it was the 41 ride.

Which now likely means that with word that SHR is bracing for Harvick to walk at seasons end in 2023, Custer’s path back up to Cup is for the 4 ride.

Stewart Has Major Pull In SHR Still

Some have wondered just how much say Tony Stewart had anymore within the SHR walls. With him having so many other racing endeavors, his name on the company and his presence may have been enough. Plus with him growing increasingly frustrated with NASCAR as a whole, you couldn’t blame him for being more hands off in terms of being a decision maker.

However, this move says his influence is still high within the walls of the SHR shop. Stewart wanted Ryan Preece in Cup for 2023. Gene Haas wanted to keep Cole Custer. In fact, Custer’s dad, Joe Custer, is the Team President. You’d think it would be 2 against 1 in favor of Custer staying.

Instead, Stewart got his wish.

Preece moves up in a car being funded by Gene Haas personally in the Haas Automation No. 41 Ford. That shows just how much pull the Hall of Famer truly still has within that company.

SHR Needs Spark

Is this the spark that SHR needed? There’s no secret, they’ve been in a rut the last couple of seasons. Maybe this is what they needed as they ended 2022 on a high note. While Custer is certainly being looked at as a problem, it’s not like he was truly that far off as his teammates.

Aric Almirola was 20th in points while Custer was 25th. They weren’t that far apart.

However, it’s how they ended that looked promising. Chase Briscoe had 6 top 10 finishes over the final 7 weeks including a fourth place run in Phoenix. Kevin Harvick had 3 top 8’s in the last 5 weeks including a 5th place finish himself in Phoenix. Even Custer’s speed was looking improved as the year closed out.

If they can pick up in Daytona to where they left off in Phoenix, then I expect this addition of Preece could be the spark that SHR needs to get back towards the front on a weekly basis again.

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