The NASCAR Cup Series schedule was grueling enough, with 37 races in 10 months, all varying on different sized and styled tracks. Then last week drivers were thrown a new wrinkle with the addition of a dirt track race at Bristol Motor Speedway, something BMS announced would return for the 2022 season.
So what are the challenges associated with learning how to drive all different styles of race tracks, and how do drivers go from Bristol on the dirt to the asphalt and pavement of one of NASCAR’s shortest tracks, Martinsville Speedway?
NASCAR Cup Series driver Cole Custer, a 23-year-old driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, now in his second season in the top series of NASCAR, spoke with the Bulletin this week about all of that, as well as his plans for the week off and how he’s preparing for this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
Martinsville Bulletin: Thank you for calling me on the first day of your break. Do you have any big plans for the week off?
Custer: I’m just going to try to enjoy Easter. I’m going back to my girlfriend’s family in Iowa and I’m going to learn a little bit about farming. And trying to take the week off and try to get reset for Martinsville.
From a racing standpoint, what did you think of the dirt track at Bristol?
Custer: It was interesting. It’s cool to try to figure out something new. It’s a totally different discipline that we’re definitely not used to as NASCAR drivers, a lot of us. It was just something you have to adapt to. Every single lap was different and it was just a race that I don’t think any of us could be prepared for.
I was thinking as I was watching, driving on dirt is so different from what you as NASCAR drivers are used to. Do you think that proves as a driver, once you learn how to be a racecar driver you can drive anything or was it a challenge and something you’re not used to?
Custer: Always a challenge. Racing is never easy and there’s always something new to learn. Every single race, even Joey Logano, it’s not going to be easy the next time he goes to Bristol on dirt. He’s going to have to try to adapt to the conditions and something is always changing on dirt tracks. So you have to always kind of be on your game.
The way the schedule is now, you have superspeedways and road courses and short tracks, and now dirt tracks. All those different tracks and different disciplines, would you say there is a comparison to another sport for that sort of variance week-to-week?
Custer: Oh man. I don’t know, it’s almost like in baseball you’re going to change the ball every single week. One time you’re going to play with a softball, next time you’re going to play with a baseball, next time you’re going to play with a tennis ball. It’s something different every single week and trying to figure out the different ways of going about it, it’s just you have to try to learn the different intricacies of every single way that you race.
Do you like that, every week being something different?
Custer: Yea, I think that makes it interesting and it just kind of mixes things a little bit more where you have to kind of learn something new and not have it be the same thing every week.
As a driver, how do you work on that versatility? Is it simply getting in a simulator, or what is the key to making sure you’re versatile and you can drive all those different types of tracks?
Custer: It comes with practice at first, for sure. Just getting on the race track and figuring out the different disciplines of it. And then it becomes just preparing for the week, whether that’s simulator time or watching videos and film or trying to get yourself in a car for a week and trying to get yourself in a rhythm for that technique you’re goin to use. It’s just a matter of trying to reset yourself.
Looking ahead to Martinsville, you go from Atlanta to the dirt track to Martinsville. Do you sort of have to change your thinking as you go to another short track?
Custer: For sure. I think Martinsville is one of the toughest tracks on the schedule where you have to finesse the car around the corner, get on the brakes and the throttle, but then also it’s very physical with how you’re going to beat and bang on the cars. It’s just hard. You have to learn and get yourself in the mindset of when to be aggressive and when not to be.
Going from Bristol to Martinsville, normally I assume it isn’t too tough, since they’re both short tracks. But is it tougher to go straight from a dirt track to Martinsville and change your thinking?
Custer: A little bit. It’s just one of those things where you’re not going to be able to slide your car sideways at Martinsville. You’ve really got to make sure you’re not in the same mindset. You just have to look back at your notes and maybe do a little simulator work and just get back in the rhythm of what Martinsville is going to be.
How are you feeling going into Martinsville?
Custer: I think we figured it out a little better the second race last year and I’m looking forward to this year trying to have a solid run. It was always one of my favorite races to go to in the trucks and I think every driver wants to try to win that Grandfather Clock, so you always try to give it your best shot.
Martinsville Speedway will host the NASCAR Cup Series Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Cara Cooper is a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org