NASCAR on Tuesday fined Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut at the end of Sunday’s Camping World 400 NASCAR Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Also, Mike Shiplett, crew chief for Cole Custer‘s No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut at the end of Saturday’s Camping World 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Kyle Busch — Had it not been for a speeding penalty in the Cup race at Las Vegas and pit road penalty in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend, he would have swept the West Coast swing, winning all seven national series races.
Kurt Busch — His sixth-place finish marked his fourth consecutive finish of seventh or better.
Cole Custer — Last year, car owner Gene Haas said he needed to see Custer win consistently when there were questions about if Custer was ready to move to the No. 41 Cup car. Custer won Saturday’s Xfinity race with the help of new crew chief Mike Shiplett.
Spire Motorsports — It’s been tough for this new team, which came about after purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter. The team, which has had multiple drivers, has not had a finish better than 30th in the last four races. Sunday, the team placed 36th.