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.
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.
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.
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.”