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Cole Custer, Mike Shiplett ‘fine-tuned’ their way to early Xfinity success

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In early December, crew chief Mike Shiplett had a good idea what was in store for him in 2019.

In charge of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Xfinity car, Shiplett would be paired with 26-year-old Ross Chastain full-time. It would be Shiplett’s first full year with a single driver since the 2010 Cup season with AJ Allmendinger.

Later that month, Shiplett and his wife Brooke flew to South Asia to scuba dive in the Maldives. They’d also spend time living on a boat in the middle of the sea.

“That’s part of the lure of it,” Shiplett told NBC Sports. “You’re out there, you’re away from the rest of the world and nothing else matters.”

Back home, Ganassi’s primary Xfinity sponsor, DC Solar, got in hot water with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Shiplett was in-between stops on his vacation when he briefly had cell phone service and saw the news.

He quickly shut his phone off.

“I still got another week here and I’m not going to ruin it,” Shiplett told himself. “I’ll deal with it when I get back to the United States.”

He returned home Dec. 31. Two days later he arrived back at CGR headquarters. He was told “keep doing what you’re doing, we’re going racing.”

Forty-eight hours later the Xfinity operation was shut down due to a lack of sponsorship.

Within three months, Shiplett would stand in Victory Lane at Richmond Raceway celebrating his second Xfinity Series win of the year.

Instead of Chastain, Shiplett posed for pictures with 21-year-old Cole Custer, who had won his first short-track race in Xfinity, claimed a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus and matched his win total from the previous two years.

The victory also established themselves as the No. 1 threat to Christopher Bell, the prohibitive favorite to win the series championship.

Unexpected Pairing

Shiplett was announced as joining Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 00 team on Feb. 1, just 15 days before season-opener at Daytona.

But that was only because the team needed to officially submit Shiplett’s name as crew chief for the race.

Shiplett’s first day at SHR was Jan. 7, three days after Ganassi closed its Xfinity operation.

Mike Shiplett celebrates after Kyle Larson won the Xfinity Series race at Miami in 2015. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Shiplett has been in NASCAR since 1995 and is no stranger to teams shutting down mid-season after advance warning.

“This one was a little bit unexpected,” he said. “I’ve never been part of that, how rapidly it happened. But you’ve been in racing long enough, you see a lot of things. Unfortunately, this sport is driven by sponsors a lot. You kind of go with the flow of what happens.”

The quick turnaround in employment was a result of a call Shiplett made to SHR President Joe Custer, Cole’s father.

The elder Custer had inquired with Shiplett last year whether he was set for a job in 2019. He had been and Custer went on his way.

Shiplett took the place of Jeff Meendering, Cole Custer’s crew chief during his first two years who had moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to work with Brandon Jones.

Custer was “pretty nervous” about his new crew chief pairing so late in the offseason.

“That’s what kind of made it a little bit more stressful,” Custer said. “You never know how (Shiplett’s) going to compare to your chassis and your program and everything. You just don’t really know what to expect. It’s just a thing where I’m in my third year and I didn’t want to get worse than what I was. I knew we could probably have the speed and compete for wins, it was just a matter of how fast it would take to get there.”

Custer’s takeaway from their first meeting was that Shiplett was “pretty straight-forward” in his approach.

“He was quiet,” Custer said. “I think he’s all business, honestly. He’s a guy that doesn’t talk a ton, but he tells you what he thinks and what’s productive and I think that’s pretty much his deal.”

While the No. 00 had a full operation, Shiplett brought with him his lead engineer from CGR, Davin Restivo.

There were no major overhauls implemented by Shiplett with his arrival to a team that had been competing in Xfinity for just two years.

“It was a lot of fine-tuning,” Shiplett said. “Taking Cole’s strengths and putting them aside and then taking Cole’s weaknesses and then really working on them and saying, ‘OK, where are you the weakest? Where are you not happy with? Where did you struggle? Let’s focus on all that stuff.’ We didn’t have to worry about building cars. Their cars were already there. Everything was already established. It was more just working with Cole and understanding what he wanted in the car and just making him a better driver.”

Cole Custer is in his third Xfinity season and off to his best start. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Custer owned up to his weaknesses – short tracks and a lack of long-run speed. Those played some part in his wins only coming in the final three races of each season.

“I think the biggest thing was the long-run speed, figuring out how set your car up and then saving tires enough to have speed on the long runs,” Custer said.

Without the ability to test ahead of the season, the new duo had to rely on the notebook the No. 00 team had already put together.

Shiplett said the notebook chronicled how “Cole felt in practices, the changes they did, everything like that. It’s just a matter of going through all that and understanding what kind feel (Custer wants). Rewatching races, seeing what Cole puts in the car, what he wanted to do with the car.”

One area Shiplett is “fine-tuning” for SHR as a whole is how their cars and parts are put together between races.

“All the pieces and parts have to be inspected and (put) through a process where I feel Stewart-Haas Racing is young enough on the Xfinity side that was an area we could greatly improve that process and make it better,” Shiplett said. “When a car is raced, all the pieces come off the car, they get cleaned, they get serviced, they get inspected. How we go about that, getting it ready for the next event is a process I’ve learned from experience that we can make better in fine-tuning and making it more efficient to get the pieces and parts ready for the next event.”

Ahead of the Curve

It’s working.

Whether a result of Custer being in his third season on the Xfinity circuit or being paired with Shiplett, the No. 00 Ford is well ahead of its established pace of 2017-18.

After eight races, Custer has two wins and five top fives. Last year, his second top five didn’t come until race No. 11 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Custer’s wins were anything but forgettable.

Three weeks after a runner-up finish at Atlanta, Custer capitalized on a pit road penalty by Kyle Busch and led the final 19 laps before taking the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway. It delayed Busch’s 200th NASCAR win by one day.

Three races later, Custer followed a third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway with a dominant evening in Richmond. After Christopher Bell claimed the previous two races on the short track, Custer led 122 of 250 laps to earn the victory.

Custer’s two wins tie him with Bell, who is also well ahead of his record 2018 pace.

“Like I told Cole, ‘If you want to be the best driver, you’ve got to beat the best,'” Shiplett said. “If Kyle Busch is in the race or Kyle Larson or Kevin Harvick. Any of those guys like that, you’ve got to beat them.

“So it doesn’t matter whose in the race. Just getting in that mentality of if there’s five Cup drivers, that’s just five more people we’ve you’ve got to beat. Just cause they’re a Cup driver doesn’t mean they’re any more talented or better than you are.”

When it comes to the cause of their success, Custer puts it at “50/50” between his own experience and Shiplett’s leadership.

“If I was restarting this whole thing and I had my Mike as my crew chief my rookie year I think we would have done pretty good,” Custer said. “I don’t know if we’d have won the races we have so far and everything, but I think we would have added speed and competed. But I think having the two years of experience under my belt I know what it takes to win races and what feel I want when we go to the track.

“I guess I’m more fine-tuned at this point.”

Jagger Jones earns K&N West Rookie of the Year honors

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Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.

Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.

“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”

Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.

MORE: Parnelli Jones’ grandson Jagger set to make own racing mark in K&N debut

Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”

Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).

Sam Mayer previously won the K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for 2019.

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Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in 2020

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JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.

RCR is replacing Hemric with Tyler Reddick in 2020.

Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.

“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.

“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”

Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.

Other drivers who have piloted the No. 8 for JRM this season included Zane Smith (10 starts), Ryan Truex (six starts), Ryan Preece (four starts), Regan Smith (two starts), Brett Moffitt (one start), Chase Elliott (one start), Sheldon Creed (one start) and Earnhardt (one start).

 

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

On the show will be Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion will be this weekend’s championship races, particularly the Cup battle between Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

You can join the conversation by calling 1-844-NASCARNBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Viewers guide to 2019 Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday’s Cup Series championship race will be a significant moment in the career of one driver.

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will each battle for the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.

For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.

This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FUN WITH NUMBERS

The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.

As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.

Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.

“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars.  Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”

Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.

CHAMPIONSHIP BIRTHDAY?

Speaking of ages….

Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.

This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.

“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”

Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.

“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff.  I didn’t hang out with anyone.  I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that.  But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”

Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.

Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.

RACE WINNER = CHAMPION

This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.

While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.

2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)

2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)

2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)

2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)

2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)

Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”

ONE LAST MONSTER MASH

Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.

Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.

The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.

Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.

They include Austin Dillon (won the Daytona 500), Clint Bowyer (two wins in 2018) and Aric Almirola (one win).

This will also be Jimmie Johnson’s last opportunity to keep from going winless in two straight seasons. He is winless in the last 94 races (June 2017 at Dover).

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Sunday will mark the final full-time Cup starts for Paul Menard and David Ragan.

Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.

Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.

Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.

Front Row Motorsports

Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.

“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.

Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.

MOVING ON 

This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.

Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.

Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.

Rookie Daniel Hemric is being replaced by Richard Childress Racing in its No. 8 Chevrolet with Tyler Reddick next season. Hemric will drive for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 21 race in its No. 8 car.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.

JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.

Rookie Matt Tifft will not be back in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford. He can’t commit to racing next year after he suffered a seizure last month. He’s missed the last two races while John Hunter Nemechek has competed in his place. Nemechek will be in the car this weekend.

NEW TIRE

All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.

This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.

This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.

“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release.  “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that.  Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”

TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE

The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.

The Truck Series will race Friday night. Defending champion Brett Moffitt, two-time champion Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole CusterChristopher BellTyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier will compete for the crown. Reddick won this race last year to claim the championship

This will be the final full-time Xfinity starts for Bell and Reddick before the jump to the Cup Series next year.