June 14, 2017

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) Cole Custer is hoping that the late Sam Ard's magic touch will help him in the Xfinity Series event at Darlington Raceway come Labor Day weekend.

The 19-year-old Xfinity rookie's Ford Mustang will carry Ard's red-and-white signature scheme he used on the No. 00 Oldsmobile Omega on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It will be a fitting remembrance for Ard, born and raised in nearby Pamplico, and whose time in NASCAR was as remarkable for its success as for its brevity.

''Sam set the standard for dominance in NASCAR,'' Custer said Wednesday.

Ard won 22 times in 92 career races on the Xfinity Series, taking what was then called the Late Model Sportsman championship in 1983 and 1984. Ard had 67 top five finishes, but stepped away from NASCAR driving after head injuries suffered in a crash at North Carolina Speedway in October 1984.

''Daddy knew it would take too long to get back to being competitive,'' said Robert Ard, Sam's 47-year-old son.

Ard suffered from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases later in life. He died on April 2 this year at age 78.

Custer had researched the history of his No. 00 car since stepping into NASCAR's Triple-A series this season. He found that Ard was dominant, no matter what NASCAR stars were in the field. Ard won 24 poles and led 4,035 laps in three true seasons of full-time racing.

He won 10 races on the way to a series championship in 1983, then followed that the next year with eight wins and a second consecutive drivers' title.

''He outran the Cup guys when they stepped down'' to race, Robert Ard said. ''These drivers like Cole, they're finding it extremely hard to outrun Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano'' when they choose to run an Xfinity race.

Custer might have some inside help come September. Robert and his sister, Melinda Ard Matthews, sat with the young driver to give him some advice their father might had he been around.

''We gave him some top secret stuff, too,'' Matthews joked.

Custer took his own measure of the track last month when he turned his first laps during an Xfinity test session. Custer, like many before him, found the Darlington wall's a daunting proposition.

''You've got to be up on the wall and you've got to pay this track respect every time out,'' he said.

Custer and Ard's children posed for photos at the start-finish line next to the decked out car with Ard's name above the passenger side window.

Later in life, Ard brought light to drivers like himself who competed without pension plans or ways for a multi-million sport to help pioneers who put themselves at risk when he needed funds to help pay off his trailer. Stars like Harvick, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took up Ard's cause and raised money to help.

Ard's family said that's as much a part of Ard's legacy as his racing success.

''Even when Daddy was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, the team's, the drivers stepped up to help,'' Robert Ard said. ''We were honored for them to do that, remembering that these drivers put in so much of their time, their effort without any pension.''

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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