By Dustin Albino

Imagine you‘re a professional athlete and for the last two-and-a-half seasons, you have worked with just one primary coach, calling all the shots. Only for that coach to get a promotion, and the athlete is now stuck working with someone they don‘t know at all. 

Prior to last weekend‘s Xfinity Series race at Nashville Superspeedway, that‘s the predicament Riley Herbst found himself in. Stewart-Haas Racing made company-wide changes in late June, moving Richard Boswell off the No. 98 Xfinity Series car to reunite the crew chief with Chase Briscoe in the Cup Series. In 2020, the pairing won nine Xfinity Series races together. 

Davin Restivo, former lead engineer of Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford, moved to the Xfinity Series to call the shots for Herbst. Johnny Klausmeier, who was working with Briscoe, has transitioned to the company‘s vehicle performance group.

When Herbst was made aware of the change, he wasn‘t certain who Restivo was. They formally met for the first time last Monday (June 19), five days ahead of the Nashville race. 

“I walked into the shop Monday morning and he said, ‘Hi, I‘m Davin‘ and I said, ‘Hey, I‘m Riley,‘’ Herbst recalled the initial conversation going. “[Restivo] said it‘s going to take a little bit to get our communication right, but I promise I will work extremely hard to give you fast racecars.”

Herbst noted the pairing were aware of each other, as they passed each other in the halls of Stewart-Haas Racing‘s shop. But they never had a true conversation until the week of Nashville. 

Restivo is anything but foreign to the Xfinity Series. In fact, he spent the majority of his NASCAR career in the second-tier series, working under Mike Shiplett first at Chip Ganassi Racing before making the move to SHR and helping Cole Custer. 

Entering his role with Herbst, the only experience Restivo had as crew chief was in 2021, when he filled in for Shiplett at Phoenix Raceway, finishing 31st with Custer. 

Getting the nod to be crew chief is a lifelong achievement for Restivo. 

“It‘s something I‘ve always wanted to do,” he said with a smile. “As kids, I always tell people to make goals, and being at the top of the sport is what you want. Win races, win championships and get to the top is the goal here.”

Winning a race is almost what the pairing did in their first time out at Nashville. Herbst had an eventful weekend, narrowly avoiding a practice crash with CJ McLauglin, followed by restarting at the back multiple times for miscues on pit road. But when the pay window opened, the No. 98 Ford was on the front row for an overtime restart. 

AJ Allmendinger powered away to victory, but Herbst held on to the runner-up position in a ferocious battle with Sam Mayer, Austin Hill and other competitors. It marks the best finish for Herbst in 81 races driving for SHR and ties his best career finish, having finished second twice in his rookie campaign with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020. 

“I don‘t think anything there was given to me, that was all earned,” Herbst said of his tiring day. “We did all the small things right. After the last seven weeks, it‘s good to get back in the top five and get the season heading back in the right direction.”

Resitivo wasn‘t content with finishing second in his series debut as a crew chief. 

“I think for the first one out of the gate, it‘s not the finish we wanted — we want to be in Victory Lane,” he said. “All in all, it was a really good day.”

Nashville snapped an eight-race skid of finishing outside the top 10 for Herbst. Just anything that could happen to the No. 98 car in those eight races did happen. He dropped from second in the championship standings to 10th. And with Sammy Smith not finishing the race, Herbst moved up a position to ninth, still having lost 154 points to the regular season championship lead since Circuit of The Americas in late March, the site of his previous top 10. 

“I don‘t know if it‘s been bad luck or just racing,” Herbst said of the previous three months of races. “I think the last three weeks have been self-inflicted wounds of my own doing. We knew we had this pace. Cole has been fast; we‘ve been fast. We knew we could do it. I‘m proud of the guys for keeping their heads about them the last seven weeks when things haven‘t been going good. We knew it would turn around.”

For now, though, the focus is chasing points, as Herbst is just 45 points above the coveted cutline. 

Restivo said, “That‘s the thing we talked about this week: just focus on points. That comes with consistency and then wins will start coming. That‘s our goal right now.”

The first week together for Herbst and Restivo was a screeching success.

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