Cole Custer joins Dash 4 Cash battle at Richmond

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There will be one new face this weekend among the four Xfinity Series drivers who will compete for the Dash 4 Cash bonus at Richmond Raceway.

Cole Custer joins the repeat drivers of Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe in jostling for $100,000 in the ToyotaCare 250 Friday night (7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1).

It will be the third time the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been part of the Dash 4 Cash program, having been in it one time in each of the last two years.

Custer earned the spot for this weekend with a third-place finish last Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. That was his second top five in five starts at the half-mile track. He’ll likely need another at Richmond to have a realistic shot at the $100,000.

Working against Custer is his Richmond record so far. He’s never finished higher than sixth (twice) on the .750-mile track in five starts. Outside of those two results, he hasn’t placed better than 13th. He did show promise in this race last year, leading 43 laps from the pole and placing in the top five in the first two stages.

“We’ve gotten better, I feel like, at the short tracks this year,” Custer said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “It’s always kind of been not our strong suit, going to the short tracks. But we’ve had some pretty decent runs this year. Richmond’s a hard track to get a hold of. Especially since you have to worry about the long-run speed so much.”

Custer is the most tenured driver of the Dash 4 Cash participants, being in his third full-time season. Dating back to his five starts in 2016, he has four top fives and nine top 10s on short tracks. Those numbers pale compared to his record on tracks one to two miles in length (two wins, 17 top fives and 30 top 10s).

But the first seven races of 2019 have seen the 21-year-old driver improve significantly upon his performance from the first two seasons. His win at Auto Club Speedway last month marked the earliest he’s won in a season. In 2017 and ’18, his first wins came in the final three races of the year.

His four top fives so far – at Atlanta, Phoenix, Auto Club and Bristol – are three more than at the same point last year, when he went on to record 14.

Oh, and he also has three poles, half of the series-high total he earned in 2018.

He’s accomplished that with the help of new crew chief Mike Shiplett, who joined the team after Chip Ganassi Racing closed its Xfinity operation in the offseason due to a lack of sponsorship.

Cole Custer pits during Saturday’s race at Bristol (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images).

Custer’s Auto Club win was Shiplett’s 18th as a Xfinity Series crew chief.

“We’ve been really fast,” Custer told SiriusXM. “I think there’s been a group of three or four us that have been the ones fighting for the wins. It’s just a matter of getting everything a little bit better. I think as a whole we’re going to get better as a team throughout the year, especially when we go back to tracks for the second time, just because I have a new crew chief this year and a couple of new engineers with Mike Shiplett.

“I think the more we go to tracks for a second time we’re going to have a better handle when we unload of where we want to be and how we’re going to adjust our cars throughout the weekend. It’s just a matter of getting more races under our belt.”

The No. 00 team and the rest of the series won’t make a second visit to a track until July 5 at Daytona. So Custer and his team will add race No. 8 to their record Friday night with the prospect of $100,000.

“You’re still going to approach it like a normal race weekend, giving it 100 percent, doing your homework,” Custer said. “Also, if it comes down to the last few laps at the end of a stage or whatever and you’re racing those guys and racing for the hundred grand, you’re going to push things to the limit and get a little aggressive for sure.”

Custer emphasized running “your own race” while being mindful of where Bell, Briscoe and Reddick are.

“If you’re racing right with them, you’re going to race them hard because you want the track position in front of them,” Custer said. “But you still got to run your own race and you can’t put yourself in jeopardy trying to run someone else’s race.”