Coming into the backstretch chicane on the final lap of last weekend’s cutoff race at the Charlotte Roval, Cole Custer was running in ninth place ahead of Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, and his SHR teammate Chase Briscoe, who was in the middle of a tense battle on the playoff cut-line. Following a series of wild events – late race cautions, mechanical failures for his competitors, and just all-around good luck – Chase Briscoe found himself tied with Kyle Larson for the eighth and final spot in the next round of the playoffs. If he had just cruised home in the 12th position he was running in entering the backstretch, he would have transferred to the next round by virtue of holding the tiebreaker over Kyle Larson.
Better safe than sorry though if you’re SHR, right?
Down the backstretch and entering the chicane, Cole Custer slowed to a proverbial crawl, holding up the cars of Jones & Dillon on the high side, and allowing Briscoe to slip by to the inside of all three to move all the way up to his eventual finishing position of ninth. For his sacrifice, Custer would eventually be spun and come home 24th, but the damage was done. Custer – a non-playoff driver – held up two cars and allowed his playoff teammate to pick up three spots.
And I absolutely loved it.
I’m likely in the minority on that, but hear me out. What we saw there was something we almost never see: selfless, team-first racing. Cole Custer and his team were on the verge of getting only their fourth top-10 of the season, and their sixth in the last two years – shockingly low numbers when you consider the team he’s driving for. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that Custer’s seat is likely pretty hot these days, even with his family connections at SHR. The same could very likely be said for Custer’s crew chief Mike Shiplett… ya know, the one that relayed the message to Custer that he “had a tire going down” as he was approaching the chicane.
Even despite that, Custer and the 41 team went out of their way to sacrifice a good run to help their teammate advance to the next round – even though it ultimately ended up not mattering, as Briscoe would have advanced if he’d finished as he was running.
This is all implying of course that it was in fact intentional, and not truly a tire issue like the team is attempting to make it seem in their appeals – but come on, we all saw it. It was 100% team racing, there wasn’t a tire going down or other mechanical issue, and trying to claim that was the case is kind of ridiculous… but also absolutely necessary to avoid outright admitting it was race manipulation, so I completely understand.
NASCAR is one of the few team sports that never really feels like a team sport. Typically, every driver is looking out for themselves, and rarely – if ever – pay any mind to who is and isn’t driving under the same banner. About the only time you ever see teamwork is at the admittedly gimmicky super speedway races, and even then it’s more manufacturer cooperation than teammates working together. What we saw at the Roval – one teammate helping another for no gain of his own – was refreshing and fun.
Custer and his team certainly had to pay the price for it though.
After the dust settled, NASCAR reviewed data for the 41 team, and levied some steep penalties. Custer and Shiplett were both fined $100,000, the 41 team was docked 50 driver and owner points, and Shiplett was suspended indefinitely. SHR has vehemently insisted that the situation was not intentional, but… as I said above: come on. We all saw it. There was no tire going down. There was no reason for Custer to slow down like he did other than to help Briscoe gain spots.
While I think the monetary penalties are excessive, I believe the rest is mostly quite appropriate. A penalty like that for a team that was already in the mid-20’s in the standings (the penalty moves him from 25th in points to 27th, one point behind Harrison Burton) honestly doesn’t matter. That 41 team has been a liability for SHR for the last two years, they may as well get something out of them. Tack on the indefinite suspension for Shiplett – again, the one that actually relayed the message to check up – and you have what I believe to be a steep, but mostly fair penalty.
We’ll never know what the penalty would have been if Briscoe hadn’t already held the tiebreaker with Larson – but man, I wish we could have seen the fallout if that was actually the case. NASCAR has stated that the penalty would have been much steeper if Custer’s actions had ultimately impacted the playoff grid, so that certainly would have made for a fun week.
Ultimately, this situation and ones like it (Elliott vs Harvick at Bristol last year, Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013 to name just a couple) are products of NASCAR’s own design when they decided to implement the playoff format. Of course teams are going to do what they have to do to get their drivers a shot at a title. So while NASCAR can go right ahead and put on an angry face and condemn this kind of racing – they have no one to blame but themselves.
Cole Custer is my pick for teammate of the year.
Photo credit: Pat Vallely