Jeff Meendering

Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Stewart Haas Racing names Mike Shiplett as Cole Custer’s crew chief

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stewart Haas Racing on Friday announced that NASCAR veteran Mike Shiplett has been named crew chief for the No. 00 Xfinity Series Ford and driver Cole Custer.

I’m very excited to start here over at Stewart Haas Racing,” Shiplett said on the first-ever SHR Podcast. “There’s a lot of technology. I’ve been here a little over two weeks and I’m learning a lot of stuff.”

Shiplett became available when Chip Ganassi Racing shut down its 2019 Xfinity Series racing operation on Jan. 4.

Yes, doors close, but fortunately opened up pretty quick thanks to (SHR president) Joe Custer,” Shiplett said. “Just putting our best foot forward and getting ready for the 2019 race season.

“The goal every week is to go and win races. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of young drivers and get them their first wins. I’m very proud of that.”

Shiplett takes over for Jeff Meendering, who was the 21-year-old Custer’s crew chief last season. Meendering has moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing for the upcoming Xfinity Series as crew chief for Brandon Jones.

“I’m looking forward to working with Cole and refining his talents, see where he needs help and just helping him in those areas so he can win multiple races each year,” Shiplett said.

Shiplett has served as a crew chief for 191 Xfinity Series races dating back to 2007, with 17 wins, 49 top-five and 83 top-10 finishes. Drivers he’s worked with include Kasey Kane, Elliott Sadler, Patrick Carpentier, Kyle Larson, Justin Marks, Brennan Poole, Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain, Jamie McMurray and John Hunter Nemechek.

Shiplett also has 121 starts as a NASCAR Cup crew chief, with zero wins, three top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. Drivers he worked with include Terry Labonte, Mike Wallace, Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmendinger.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Brandon Jones back with Joe Gibbs Racing for second Xfinity season

Getty Images
1 Comment

Brandon Jones will return for a second season with Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the team announced Friday.

Jones will pilot the No. 19 JGR Toyota Supra. After a run with Richard Childress Racing in 2016 and 2017, Jones spent the 2018 campaign with JGR, qualified for the playoffs and finished a career-best ninth in the Xfinity standings.

In 33 starts, he had two top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, led 173 laps and scored one pole. His best showing was runner-up in the spring Xfinity race at Talladega.

Jones will be paired this season with a new crew chief, Jeff Meendering.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our 19 team and the huge strides and experience we gained last year,” Jones said in a JGR media release. “There is no doubt it was a big team effort and I am very excited about being back at Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

“With the addition of our new crew chief Jeff Meendering and his leadership, we should be in the mix every weekend competing for a championship.”

Sponsorship will be announced at a later date, the team said.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

2018 Xfinity Season in Review: Cole Custer

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Cole Custer

CREW CHIEF: Jeff Meendering

TEAM: Stewart-Haas Racing

POINTS: Second

WINS: One (Texas II)

LAPS LED:  389 (Best through two seasons)

TOP 5s: 14 (Double amount from 2017)

TOP 10s: 26 (Up from 19 in 2017)

POLES: Six (Series-best)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Twenty top 10s in first 25 races of season … Five consecutive top fives from Charlotte I to Chicagoland) … Was only Ford driver in the Championship 4 … Made his first three Cup Series starts.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Didn’t win until race 31 of season. Previous win was 2017 season finale … Three DNFs for wrecks (Atlanta, Daytona II and Indianapolis) … Led race-high 95 laps in season finale at Miami, but finished second after he lost the lead following a longer green-flag run than the rest of the leaders in the final stage.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: Will compete in a rare third full-time season in Xfinity with a new crew chief after Jeff Meendering joined Joe Gibbs Racing … Custer will have a full-time teammate in Chase Briscoe, who will drive the No. 98 Ford.

Joe Gibbs Racing announces 2019 crew chief realignment

Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced a crew chief realignment for the 2019 season for four of its teams.

Chris Gabehart will take over for Mike Wheeler as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief in the Cup Series. Wheeler and Hamlin parted ways following the season finale at Homestead. Gabehart spent the last three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief for JGR earning a total of nine wins during that time. Last year, he was the crew chief for the Xfinity No. 19 team of Brandon Jones.

Eric Phillips will also move from the Xfinity series to Cup as the car chief for Hamlin. He earned eight wins during three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief on the No. 18.

Jeff Meendering will fill the crew chief spot on the Xfinity No. 19 vacated by Gabehart and will be paired with Jones.

Meendering returns to JGR after two years with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 00 car.

Ben Beshore moves from his current role as engineer on Kyle Busch‘s car to fill the role of crew chief on the Xfinity No. 18. This team typically fields multiple drivers during the season.

“With such a short offseason it’s important to start work toward the 2019 season immediately and we are proud with the teams we have assembled now, both in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in the Xfinity Series,” said owner Joe Gibbs in a press release. “With Chris Gabehart joining Adam Stevens, Chris Gayle, and Cole Pearn on the Cup side we believe we have the right leaders in place to benefit our entire organization.”

Former driver Mark McFarland will become team manager and crew chief for JGR’s K&N Pro series and ARCA car. In 31 starts in the Xfinity series, McFarland scored one top 10 at Talladega in 2006 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“In addition, we take a tremendous amount of pride in our accomplishments in the Xfinity Series and are excited to have Jeff Meendering and Ben Beshore join Jason Ratcliff to lead our efforts there, as well as bolster our developmental program in ARCA with the addition of Mark McFarland,” Gibbs said.