AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cole Custer’s car sat dormant during a long red-flag period in last weekend’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Martinsville Speedway. Six laps remained in regulation and his working margin relative to the elimination line at the time was a slim plus-two in the points, with a Championship 4 berth in the balance.
Overtime loomed, and the specter of late-race chaos seemed like more of a promise than a threat. Jonathan Toney, a Stewart-Haas Racing veteran in his first season as a crew chief with the No. 00 Ford group, keyed the team communications to fill in the lull.
“Bud, I’ve been sitting here trying to find something inspirational to say,” Toney told his driver. “I don’t guess I really can, so I’m just gonna tell you: No matter what, I’m proud of you, I’m proud of this team. We’ve come a long, long way this year, so let’s go finish this thing off, so we can go race ’em at Phoenix.”
Custer’s margin held in the most spectacular of ways, as he jammed his battered, fire-flashed car into reverse and backed across the start/finish line after the final-lap fracas that came to fruition.
“I’ve never done that before,” Custer said Thursday during NASCAR Championship Weekend Media Day. “That was a new one for me, but you’re gonna do whatever it takes to try to get in the Championship 4.”
Custer will compete for his first Xfinity Series championship in Saturday’s season finale (7 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM, NBC Sports App), squaring off against Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek and JR Motorsports teammates Justin Allgaier and Sam Mayer. The 25-year-old Californian has made the most of his return to the Xfinity circuit this season, scoring two wins, six poles and surviving the playoff gauntlet run.
Custer came back to the Xfinity Series this year with SHR after three full Cup seasons with the organization, a term that yielded a breakthrough victory as a rookie in 2020 but that also produced finishes outside the playoff running the next two years. From the step down the ladder has come a measure of rejuvenation. Custer’s car still wears the No. 00 that he carried during his previous stint in the series, but it’s a new group led by Toney that surrounds him. Their mission will continue into next season, with SHR announcing Thursday morning that Custer will return to the No. 00 ride for 2024.
“It’s been an extremely proud year for me because I think we’ve built something,” Custer says. “I think we started the year off and we weren’t exactly where we wanted to be, but we were a young team with a lot of young guys and I think we were able to really build it through the year and make sure to just communicate well, and through that, we turned ourselves into a championship-competing team.”
The team took some time to realize its performance goals. Custer didn’t notch his first top-five finish until April, but that fifth-place result at Richmond Raceway – his first since the season-opener at Daytona – was the start of an 11-race streak of top 10s that cemented his place in the higher reaches of the standings.
That resurgent run came together under the guidance of Toney, one of the senior-most members of the organization. The North Carolina native got his start there in December 2003, when the team was still under the Haas CNC Racing banner and years before Tony Stewart’s involvement as a co-owner.
Toney’s background and know-how have been a boon to SHR for years, and he served as the engineer for Stewart’s efforts for 14 Cup Series victories over four seasons, including the 2011 championship. Since then, Toney has served in research and development capacities and as the Xfinity program’s head of engineering, before his transition to crew chief this year.
Calling the shots from atop the pit box has been a new act for the 49-year-old Toney. So has scratching around for a motivational team-radio speech, then sweating out the final nervous but fulfilling moments at Martinsville.
“We’ve just got such an uncommon group of guys. I mean, they are just a special, special group,” Toney told NASCAR.com post-race at Martinsville. “I’ve done this a long time and have been with some championship race teams, and I’m gonna put this one at the top. I’m so proud of them, so proud of our little race car driver. He’s an awesome little wheelman.
“I don’t think Phoenix will be this stressful. I hope not. I don’t know if I can take it.”
Custer has been through the Xfinity Series’ elimination-style format before, advancing to the final four in consecutive years (2018-19) and finishing second to eventual champ Tyler Reddick each time at Homestead-Miami Speedway – the former site of the finale. Reaching this stage of the playoffs again, Custer says, has him prepared for how Saturday’s 200-miler could play out.
“I think it just comes with experience knowing what to expect, knowing not to get too riled up through the weekend,” Custer said. “You’re gonna be up at times and you’re gonna be down at times, but knowing that you just have to put it together that last run, and I’m confident that we’re gonna have a fast car and should be able to compete for a win there.”