Cole Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team received one of the harshest penalties of the season three races ago at the Charlotte Roval.
But that did little to stop them from trying a similar strategy again Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Cole Custer and the No. 41 team received hefty penalties for actions on the final lap at the Charlotte Roval
NASCAR issued a penalty of 50 points and a $100,000 fine to Custer, along with 50 owner points for the No. 41 car and an indefinite suspension of his crew chief Michael Shiplett, who also received a $100,000 fine two days after the Round of 12 finale in the NASCAR Playoffs at the Charlotte Roval.
Custer was running ninth on the final lap after an overtime restart, and teammate Chase Briscoe had made a pass for 11th as they exited Turn 2 and filed down the backstretch. Briscoe was tied with Kyle Larson for the eighth and final transfer spot at that point but held the tiebreaker because he had the best finish of either driver in a race during the round.
Still, Custer slowed dramatically as he approached the backstretch chicane, effectively blocking Austin Dillon and Erik Jones to let Briscoe speed ahead into ninth. Briscoe held on to ninth for the remainder of the lap and made the Round of 8 with two points to spare ahead of Larson.
NASCAR officials reviewed data and radio communications from the No. 41 team after the race.
“I think we’ve got a flat tire. Slow up. I think we’ve got a flat tire. Check up. Check up,” Shiplett told Custer over the team radio while Custer was on the backstretch.
NASCAR cited Custer and his team for violating Section 5.5 of the Cup Rule Book for artificially altering the finish of a race and attempting to help Briscoe gain spots necessary to advance to the Round of 8. SHR appealed the penalties, but the National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld all of them in full.
The fines and suspension were likely the most damaging portion of the penalties since Custer is 26th in the points standings and would only be one position higher if he had his 50 points back.
Roval penalties did not deter SHR from trying to have Custer help Briscoe again at Martinsville
However, they weren’t detrimental enough to keep SHR from essentially trying the same type of move at Martinsville in the final race of the Round of 8.
Briscoe entered the Martinsville event last of the eight drivers still eligible to compete for the Cup Series championship. His only chance to reach the Championship 4 was to win the race at the half-mile short track since he entered the race 42 points below William Byron for the fourth and final transfer spot.
Briscoe started the 500-lap race third and finished sixth in Stage 1 before falling back to 18th by the midpoint.
He was ninth when his crew chief Johnny Klausmeier made a last-ditch effort to win the race on the final caution when he left Briscoe on the race track with more than 60-lap older tires. The entire rest of the field came to pit road – except Custer.
That decision put Briscoe in the lead for what would be the final restart with 24 laps to go. Custer lined up outside Briscoe on the restart but quickly filed in behind the No. 14 car to provide a buffer between Briscoe and the drivers with new tires.
That strategy worked for a dozen laps until Keselowski passed Custer for second. Eventual winner Christopher Bell then began his charge from fourth and caught Briscoe with five laps to go. Briscoe quickly faded to 10th, missing the Championship 4, and Custer crossed the finish line in 15th. Keselowski was later disqualified from fourth place, so both Briscoe and Custer gained a spot in the official results.
The call to not pit on the final caution did not ultimately work out for SHR, but it absolutely showed how little the penalties from the previous round affected the organization’s strategy moving forward.
Controversy could have exploded again had Briscoe won at Martinsville
Would NASCAR have penalized the No. 41 team and SHR again had Briscoe won the race?
Perhaps the sanctioning body would have reasoned that Custer did not intentionally slow down to assist Briscoe, but the effect was the same. He was attempting to manipulate the end of the race so his teammate could win.
That is why the Roval penalties were somewhat baseless. Sure, it was rather apparent that Custer had slowed down at the Roval to let Briscoe pass, but teammates have done those sorts of moves countless times throughout NASCAR history.
The Roval penalties may not have been unwarranted, but they nonetheless set a nearly impossible standard for NASCAR to officiate with at least one team willing to test the limits at the next possible opportunity.
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