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How crew chief Toney and Custer come full circle

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Jonathan Toney has a very clear early memory of Cole Custer.

“He wore these high-heeled shoes that looked like roller skate shoes,” Toney tells RACER. “We had a ramp at the back of our van and he ran the truck down the aisle and landed on the ramp as best he could with his high heels. I kept thinking, “This little boy is going to break his nose walking down the ramp.” I told him a few years ago that I was waiting for it, but he never did.

“Now he’s here, almost a face of this company. It's funny how things turn out. I never imagined that a 5 year old boy would become a driver for this company, let alone that I would work with him. It was fun watching him grow up.”

Toney, the crew chief of Custer's No. 00 Ford Mustang Dark Horse in the NASCAR Toney, one of Stewart-Haas Racing's longest-serving employees, joined the organization when it was still called Haas CNC Racing. Cole's father and long-time company boss Joe Custer showed his son around the racing workshop.

Over the years, Toney watched Custer grow from a quiet, shy young child, to a developing driver who wanted to learn how to drive a quarter-midget, to a grassroots star, and finally to a sponge of a NASCAR National Series driver. Then in 2023, the two were paired professionally and won the Xfinity Series championship.

The well-deserved achievement received a lot of attention and both men received awards. However, as a driver, Custer was of course the focus. It was a feel-good story in which Custer went from trouble in the Cup Series to reinvention in the Xfinity Series and becoming a champion.

Toney, on the other hand, has seemingly always flown under the radar.

For Toney, it started at Hickory Motor Speedway (North Carolina). He remembers being taken by his father to train at the track when he was three or four years old. As he passed through the first turn gate, Papa accompanied Toney up the fence to watch the action.

“I remember literally hanging on the fence as the cars drove by,” Toney says. “The petrol got into my blood straight away and the racing fever bit me that day. From the time I was three or four years old until I traveled with the Hooters Pro Cup team when I was 26 or 27, there weren't many Saturday nights that I didn't miss a Saturday night with my dad at Hickory Motor Expressway.”

Toney and his father eventually began attending Cup Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Rockingham. One day as he left Charlotte, a teenage Toney said to his father, “I'm not sure how I'm going to do this, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Knowing he wanted to work on racing cars, Toney chose engineering. Sitting in high school one day and realizing that a NASCAR great like Alan Kulwicki had left Wisconsin and made it into NASCAR with an engineering degree, it was a glowing moment.

Toney graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) in 1996. By 2003, Toney had experienced a USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series championship alongside Shane Huffman. Those contacts led to an introduction to Haas CNC Racing, which was building an Xfinity Series team for the late Jason Leffler. Toney joined the company in the winter of 2003.

In 2005, Toney worked with Mike Bliss on the Cup Series team. Over time, Toney worked with several drivers, from Leffler to Bliss to Johnny Sauter and Jeff Green. A few years later, in 2009, Tony Stewart joined forces with Gene Haas and renamed themselves Stewart-Haas Racing.

It bears repeating that the 2023 season was Toney's first as a NASCAR crew chief, although he has been in the NASCAR garage for two decades. He spent his entire career making a difference behind the scenes.

Toney has shaped the success of Stewart-Haas Racing, including as chief engineer to Tony Stewart from 2009 to 2012. Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. The lead engineer role is one that Toney has spent a lot of time in for the organization in both the Cup Series and Xfinity, even on Custer's team where he was part-time in 2017 when they won at Homestead-Miami Speedway .

Toney has spent a lot of time helping to build the organization's Xfinity Series program. He was not promoted to crew chief until 2023.

“The biggest thing it's taken for me to get used to the position I'm in now is that I worry about everything, and a lot of things that I never even thought about before” says Toney. “So, being able to balance that and trusting the people around you, letting them do their job and recognizing what each individual is strong at. I used to have one or two specific parts that I could focus on and really refine, like the chassis geometry. The role of the crew chief; You can’t focus on one area but look at the bigger picture.”

It didn't take long for Toney to realize that an engineer's responsibilities are very different from the responsibilities of running the race team from the pit box.

“It’s funny – I remember how the Xfinity Series worked in California last year, where everyone plays a role behind the wall when it comes to pit stops,” Toney says. “I had gotten out of the pits (to help) and I had to remind myself that I still had to be the one to tell him to go to the pits. Making those decisions during the game and being the one that people give advice to was a learning curve. But it’s also what you enjoy about the process, especially when it turns out well and in your favor.”

It was time for Toney to change jobs. While earlier in his career he was reluctant to sacrifice family time as his children grew, now that they are older, balancing personal and professional life has become easier. It also helps that the Xfinity Series races are on Saturdays, so Toney is home on Sundays.

“And I always said I wasn’t going to be a crew chief just to say I was a crew chief,” Toney says. “It would have been almost the perfect situation to get involved in. So when the opportunity came up, when Joe and others talked to me about working with Cole, the first step I took was to go home and talk to my wife about it. We talked about it and prayed… and from her perspective it was a no-brainer. And the situation with Cole fit our story almost perfectly.”

Toney and Custer are in second place in the championship standings after seven races. Despite being winless, Custer has led over 100 laps and has 66 stage points. He is the driver with the highest points without a win.

The fact that Toney and Custer are reigning champions doesn't mean they walk around with their chests puffed out. The team continues to push for more. But having a championship strengthens belief in their abilities and provides comfort in the ranks.

Loyalty is important to Toney, which is why he has spent his entire career with one organization. Sure, there were times early on when others interviewed him and tried to poach him, but Toney always had a connection with the people at Stewart-Haas. The organization supported him and gave him opportunities along the way. And of course it was tempting to work with someone of Stewart's caliber.

When given the opportunity to reflect on and tell his story, Toney initially jokes that it reminds him of how long ago it was. But seriously, he's humble enough to keep using the word “blessed” when talking about how things turned out, how rewarding it was for Stewart to be a partial success of Leffler's victory in 2004, the was the first for the organization. to Custer.

“We’re not done winning races and hopefully we’re not done winning championships,” Toney said. “That is the goal. But being a part of that championship team with (Custer) last year almost brought things full circle, and I’m very, very proud and very honored to be a part of it.”