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

“He had these heely shoes that he wore, like roller skate shoes,” Toney tells RACER. “We had a ramp out of the back of our hauler, and he’d take off running down the center aisle in the truck, and he’d hit the ramp as he could on those heely shoes. I kept thinking, ‘That little kid is going to bust his nose going down that ramp.’ I told him that a couple of years ago that I was waiting on that, but he never did.

“Now, here he is, almost a face of this company. It’s funny how things come around. I never would have thought that 5-year-old kid would be a driver for this company, let alone that I’d be working with him. It’s been fun to watch him grow up.”

Toney, the crew chief of Custer’s No. 00 Ford Mustang Dark Horse in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, has indeed watched Custer grow up, and their connection is now about 20 years old. One of the most tenured Stewart-Haas Racing employees, Toney joined the organization when it was Haas CNC Racing. Cole’s father and longtime company executive, Joe Custer, would bring his son around the race shop.

Through the years, Toney watched Custer go from a quiet, shy young kid to a developing driver trying to learn how to race a quarter midget, to grassroots star and finally 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 accomplishment received plenty of attention, and both men were bestowed with accolades. However, Custer, naturally, has been the center of attention as the driver. It was a feel-good story with Custer going from struggling in the Cup Series to reinventing himself in the Xfinity Series and becoming a champion.

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

Hickory Motor Speedway (North Carolina) is where it started for Toney. He remembers being 3 or 4 years old and being taken to a practice session at the racetrack by his dad. Walked into the first turn gate, dad walked Toney up the fence to see the action.

“I remember literally hanging on the fence as the cars would go by,” Toney says. “The gasoline got into my blood right then, and the racing bug bit me that day. There weren’t many Saturday nights from the time I was 3 or 4 years old until I started traveling with the Hooters Pro Cup team when I was 26 or 27 years old that I didn’t miss a Saturday night with my dad at Hickory Motor Speedway.”

Toney and his father eventually started attending Cup Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Rockingham. It was leaving Charlotte one day that a teenaged Toney told his father, “I’m not sure how I’m going to do this, but this is what I want to do the rest of my life.”

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

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

In 2005, Toney worked on the Cup Series team with Mike Bliss. In time, Toney worked with multiple 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 rebranded to Stewart-Haas Racing.

It bears repeating that even though he’s been in the NASCAR garage for two decades, the 2023 season was Toney’s first as a NASCAR crew chief. The entirety of his career was spent making a difference in the background.

Among the fingerprints Toney has put on Stewart-Haas Racing’s success was as Tony Stewart’s lead engineer from 2009 through 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 the Xfinity, even on Custer’s team, where he was the road part-time in 2017 when they won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Toney spent a lot of time helping build the organization’s Xfinity Series program. It wasn’t until 2023 that he was promoted to crew chief.

“The biggest thing that it took me to get used with the position I’m in now is, I worry about everything, and I worry about a lot of things that I didn’t used to even think about,” Toney says. “So, being able to balance that and trust in the people around you, letting them do their job and recognizing what each one is strong at doing. In the past, I’d have one or two specific parts that I could focus on and really hone in on, like chassis geometry. The crew chief role; you can’t focus on one area, but look at the whole picture.”

It didn’t take long for Toney to find the responsibilities as an engineer are much different from being the guy leading the race team from the pit box.

“It’s funny – I remember last year at California with how the Xfinity Series works that everyone has a behind-the-wall role when it comes to pit stops,” Toney says. “I had gotten off the box (to help), and I had to remind myself that I still had to be the one to tell him to pit. Making those game-time decisions and being the one that people are offering advice has been a learning curve. But it’s also what you enjoy about the process, especially when it turns out right and goes in your favor.”

The time was right for Toney to make a job change. Whereas earlier in his career he wasn’t willing to sacrifice family time as his children were growing up, it became easier to balance personal and professional now that they’re older. It also helps that Xfinity Series races are on Saturdays, giving Toney Sundays at home.

“And I’d always said that I wasn’t going to go be a crew chief just for the sake of saying that I was a crew chief,” Toney says. “It was going to have been almost the perfect situation to go into it, so when that opportunity opened up with Joe and others talking to me about working with Cole, the first step I took was going home to talk to my wife about it. We talked and prayed about it … and that was a no-brainer from her perspective. And the situation with it being Cole was almost perfect with our history.”

Toney and Custer are second in the championship standings through seven races. Although winless, Custer has already led over 100 laps and has 66 stage points. He is the highest sitting driver in points without a victory.

Being the reigning champions doesn’t mean Toney and Custer are walking around with their chests puffed out. The team continues to push for more. But having a championship reinforces the belief in their abilities, and there is comfort within the ranks.

As for Toney, loyalty goes a long way, and that’s why he’s spent his entire career at one organization. Sure, there were times early that others interviewed him and tried to hire him away, but Toney has always connected to the people at Stewart-Haas. The organization nurtured him and gave him opportunities along the way. And, of course, working with someone of Stewart’s caliber was enticing, too.

When given the chance to reflect and tell his story, Toney first jokes that it reminds him of how long it’s been. But on the serious side, he is humble enough to repeatedly use the word “blessed” at how things have turned out, how rewarding it’s been to be a part success from Leffler’s 2004 win, which was the first for the organization, to Stewart, to Custer.

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