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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.”

Daniel Hemric trying to get on right foot, break rookie slump

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In a sense, Daniel Hemric is learning to walk again.

After two strong seasons in the Xfinity Series (fourth in points in 2017 and third in 2018), Hemric is learning to race in a whole different way in his rookie Cup season.

The No. 8 team is focused on putting one foot in front of the other,” Hemric said last weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Hemric’s first nine Cup races of 2019 for Richard Childress Racing have been a struggle. His best finish has been 18th (at Phoenix), and he’s coming off a 19th-place finish at Richmond, which buoyed his hopes after four prior finishes between 27th and 33rd.

“Coming out of Richmond with a top-20 finish? We’ll take it,” the Kannapolis, North Carolina native said.

Even with the rough start, Hemric hasn’t lost any motivation, or more importantly, support.

It’s great to have a group of guys that haven’t given up on me,” he said. “We didn’t finish exactly where we wanted (at Richmond), but we definitely out-kicked our coverage from the positions we’ve put ourselves in over the last few weeks. We’ll take it and hopefully it’s a building moment for everyone on this No. 8 team.”

Hemric knows it’s just a matter of time before things click and results go in his favor. Until then, he’s not panicking, not doing anything crazy.

It’s just been a matter to fall back on the things that got me through times like this in my life,” he said. “This is definitely one of the harder moments because you kind of got to regroup and redo it all over again, so it’s such a quick timeframe.

Some of the other series I’ve ran, you have more time to dwell or rebuild on whatever situation and so it’s kind of a good thing, bad thing. You have to turn it around really quick and flip it around.”

In addition to his team, Hemric is also getting a lot of support from his wife, family and friends.

They know the trials and things we’re going through and it’s not anything that any haven’t experienced before,” he said. “It’s just been a little longer drawn out than we would want it to be.

In the grand scheme of things, I’ve said that when the sun comes up, you get another shot at it and that’s the way I’m approaching it.”

Even fans are pitching in to do what they can to help Hemric shake the bad luck problems that continue to plague him and his team. One fan even went so far as to send Hemric and his team eight rabbit foots to hopefully bring some good vibes.

Hemric went into the Easter break 28th in the Cup standings. Teammate Austin Dillon is 14th in the standings, coming off his best finish of the season, sixth, at Richmond.

I don’t look at Austin as just a teammate, he’s family to me,” Hemric said. “I watched him grow up and have been a part of some of his success and seen him have the success he’s had. He’s also had his own struggles at times and stuff that I’ve seen and witnessed with my own eyes.”

That’s why Hemric huddled with both Dillon and team owner Richard Childress after Texas (33rd, second-worst finish of the season).

I asked them both, ‘Man, this is probably the bottom for me. I got to know which way to go here,” Hemric said.

And that’s where the learning to walk again analogy came back into play.

They said just keep putting your best foot forward and leaning on guys like that who have experienced the same struggles at times and came out on the other side with success, that’s all the motivation you need,” Hemric said. “It’s no different with our boss (Childress) and what he’s done with the company, Richard Childress Racing.

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Why Tyler Reddick chose to reveal his many sides through Twitter

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How to stop worrying about and start loving The Twitter?

Tyler Reddick said he found the secret a few years ago after much hand-wringing over how his thoughts and views would be perceived when they took shape in social media.

“Half the time I wouldn’t say them, and I just said, ‘I’m going to let it go and let it chill and filter it some,’” Reddick told NBC Sports during a recent media availability at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Because you don’t want to get out there and just blast someone and be swearing at them. There’s a fine line.

“I’m sure at some point in the future, my interaction will cross that line on accident, and there’ll be some serious backlash for it.”

Tyler Reddick honors Dolly in his unique way at Bristol (Donald Page/Getty Images).

In the meantime, the NASCAR world is getting the best version of the Richard Childress Racing driver – the raw, candid and often hilarious (check out the wig he wore at Bristol to commemorate his Dolly Parton-sponsored car) but sometimes controversial sides – as the 2018 Xfinity Series champion shares more of his stream of consciousness with the world.

Whether it’s been a Daytona feud with Bubba Wallace, mercilessly trolling the Xfinity Series for a lack of championship recognition, or offering some serious thoughts on group qualifying in Cup, Reddick has a sharp pair of thumbs working over his smartphone.

Though he seems more prolific since winning the title last November, Reddick said he had grown comfortable with being himself on Twitter long before that.

Among the first times was when he called out truck series driver Ben Rhodes for describing the Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway as a “demolition derby” during a TV interview. “It’s truly an incredible event, and it’s cool we’re even at Eldora,” Reddick said. “For him to bash it, it hit a soft spot obviously because I’m a dirt racer.”

“Half the time I’d type something out, and me being reserved when I was younger, I just wouldn’t say it,” Reddick said. “And I figured I might as well be myself and say what I want to say when I’m feeling it, or type it, I guess I should say.

“I think it was there before the championship. I think it’s just kind of coincidence (since then). Obviously, there have been people who have poked about the championship, so I think maybe in that sense because of that, it’s gotten more attention since then. I think as I’ve gotten more comfortable with me being who I am and not afraid to show it, I’ve just opened up to it more.”

It already has gotten delicate, though, in the case of Wallace, whose Richard Petty Motorsports team has an alliance and engine deal with RCR.

Without using his name in a tweet, Wallace blamed a crash on Reddick, who was making his Daytona 500 debut.

“It was a touchy deal, but I was very frustrated naturally in that situation,” said Reddick, who leads the Xfinity points with seven top 10s through eight starts of his first season with RCR’s No. 2 Chevrolet. “He was, too. But he just went on Twitter and said something I didn’t agree, and he kind of did it in a light that he was trying to throw it under the radar a little bit.

“He knew who he was talking about, and he didn’t want to say anything to me about it, he wanted to put it on Twitter, so I had no problem calling him out for it. It’s just the way it was. I’ve done it in the past.”

And will continue to do so in the future – at least until he crosses that line. Until then, Reddick recognizes that the byproduct of his honesty is some honest laughter from his followers.

“There are people getting chuckles that I know (are) getting a kick out of it,” Reddick said. “I don’t really do that to get those responses. I just do it because that’s how I feel about it.”

Shotgun! Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer share beer over Twitter

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Before Clint Bowyer dropped by to raise a little hell on this week’s episode of “The Dale Jr. Download,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a modest proposal for the podcast episode.

Alas, while there was plenty of talk about beer, beer signs and partying, no beers were consumed, let alone shotgunned.

But Bowyer didn’t forget!

He called out Earnhardt on Twitter Thursday afternoon, shotgunning a Miller Lite in the process.

A Budweiser in hand, Earnhardt answered the call within 40 minutes.

On a quiet week with NASCAR off for Easter, plenty of NASCAR drivers chimed in to judge Earnhardt’s shotgun technique and the beer used.

Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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