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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.”

Goodyear tire info for Richmond race weekend

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If Goodyear tires at Richmond Raceway look familiar this weekend, there’s a good reason.

Teams competing in Friday’s Xfinity and Saturday’s Cup races will have the same Goodyear tire compounds as they raced upon in the spring at the 3/4-mile bullring in April.

Richmond is simply one of the more high-wear tracks on the NASCAR circuit,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said in a media release. “What we’ve seen this year with this higher downforce package, with the cars more ‘in the track’ and with less lateral slip, wear is down a bit compared to 2018.

Saying that, tires are still very important at Richmond. The tread compounds we bring do a good job rubbering in the track, creating multiple racing grooves throughout the race.”

As a result, tire management is a significant element for this weekend’s races, “meaning a good amount of passing throughout the field as a run progresses,” according to the Goodyear media release. “Richmond has traditionally lined up with a couple other tracks of similar length – New Hampshire and Phoenix – but its ‘racy’ configuration requires more stagger (difference in height between the shorter left-side tire and the taller right-side tire) be built into the tire set-up.”

NOTES: This is the only track at which Cup or Xfinity teams will run either of these two Goodyear tire codes. … As on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run liners in their tires at Richmond.

Here is the information for this weekend’s tires at Richmond:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Intermediate Radials

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (nine race sets plus one set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: Six sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4874; Right-side — D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,214 mm (87.17 in.); Right-side — 2,244 mm (88.35 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 12 psi; Left Rear – 12 psi; Right Front — 30 psi; Right Rear — 27 psi

Daniel Hemric not returning to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car next year

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Daniel Hemric will not return to drive Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020, the team announced Tuesday. The team said in a statement it had exercised its option and would release Hemric following this season.

Hemric is in his rookie Cup season and has been with RCR for three years. He competed for the team in the Xfinity Series from 2017-18 before moving to Cup. Hemric has competed in five full-time seasons across Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series and has yet to visit victory lane.

More: NASCAR schedule, video and more

Through 27 races this year, Hemric has two top-10 finishes – a fifth at Talladega and a seventh at Pocono in July – and an average finish of 22.7.

The move by RCR to release Hemric creates a potential open seat for RCR’s Xfinity series driver Tyler Reddick, who is the defending Xfinity champion. Owner Richard Childress said in July the only way he could keep Reddick was if he moved Reddick up to Cup.

Reddick has five wins this season, including last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Reddick enters the postseason as the regular-season champion. The postseason begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Statements from RCR and Hemric are below.

Joey Gase joins Garrett Smithley to defend self from Kyle Busch criticism

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Joey Gase on Tuesday joined Garrett Smithley to basically tell Kyle Busch to double-check his facts before pointing fingers.

Busch criticized Smithley and Gase for their driving – having made contact with Smithley and was impeded by Gase – late in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas, leaving Busch with an eventual 19th-place finish.

Busch said in an interview on NBCSN: “We’re the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic, they don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Gase stood up for himself in an extended tweet Tuesday.

Here’s a transcript of that post:

Well someone implied (Sunday) night that I have never won a late model race before. As you can see in the pics below I have won a few in my day and just wanted to share my story a little bit and thank the people who have helped me get to where I am today.

My dad raced before I did at the local short track level and that’s how I fell in love with racing. When I was 4 years old my dad got me my first yard kart and would turn hundreds of laps on the driveway everyday. When I turned 14 my dad retired from racing and I started to race his old open wheel modified and won that year up in Oktoberfest in Lacrosse, WI which anyone in the Midwest knows how big of a weekend that is.

When I was 16 I was the youngest ever to win the track championship in the Late Model division at Hawkeye Downs Speedway racing against some of the best in the Midwest like Johnny Spaw, Tim Plummer, Griffen McGrath, Doughly Fleck, Brad Osborn and the list goes on and this is when my career took off.

This was only made possible because a family friend believed in me and bought my first two late models and the motors to go with it. Our crew consisted of my dad, my uncle, grandpa, and I. My parents were not rich, my dad worked in a coal power plant for 20 plus years and my mom was a hair stylist. It took the effort of my whole family and a lot of people who believed in me to get to where I am today and I can’t thank them enough.

We have accomplished a lot of cool things over the years, my top memories being winning my first race back after my mom’s passing, finishing fifth with Jimmy Means Racing at Talladega after almost missing the race and making my first start in the Daytona 500 and being the highest finishing rookie (23rd).

I have to give HUGE thanks to Jimmy Means for giving me a big chance and making it possible for myself to get established in NASCAR with nearly no funding when we first started and Carl Long for picking me back up after my big sponsor from last year did not stand by their commitments and letting me know in the middle of December.

We have to work for every sponsor we get and I am proud to say I have 30 different sponsors this year and would not be here without them. Also have to thank all of my fans for always standing by me.”

Gase’s tweet follows Smithley’s rebuke of Busch late Monday afternoon, giving his side of the contact with the former Cup champ.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan discussed if Busch was wrong in his criticism.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Preliminary entry lists for Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend at Richmond Raceway for two of the national series.

The Cup Series holds the second race of its opening round while the Xfinity Series kicks off its postseason.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race.

Cup – Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Quin Houff is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in RWR’s No. 52 Ford and Spencer Boyd is in the team’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the spring race at Richmond over Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch won this race last year over Kevin Harvick and Truex.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Go Bowing 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the fourth time this season.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Hermie Sadler is entered in Ryan Sieg Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It will be his first Xfinity start since this race in 2016.

Joe Graf Jr. is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

There is no driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won at Richmond in the spring over Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier. Christopher Bell won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

Click here for the entry list.

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