Herbst continues trajectory with crew chief Restivo

Change can be scary. It’s something Riley Herbst tried to avoid at this time last season, despite Stewart-Haas Racing’s desire to pair Chase Briscoe with a new crew chief, Richard Boswell. It was an effort to reform a dominant duo that took the Xfinity Series by storm in 2020 with nine victories.

As the NASCAR Xfinity Series entered a pair of road courses last spring, Herbst learned what was coming. Stewart-Haas informed Herbst that his new crew chief would be Davin Restivo, the lead engineer for Aric Almirola in the Cup Series.

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“It wasn’t welcomed at the beginning,” Herbst said of the change. “It’s not that I didn’t want to get rid of [Boswell] or I didn’t want Davin, because the furthest from the truth. But I didn’t think it was to the best standards of the company to change my crew chief a little bit more than a [third] of the way through the season. I didn’t think that was truly fair, just because higher-ups wanted Briscoe and Boswell back together because of their 2020 campaign.

“I had to take that medicine and move on with it. I think that’s what frustrated me the most about the whole thing. Not that Richard was leaving or that I was getting Davin because ultimately Davin is awesome, and I like him, it’s just the fact of how they did it.”

Despite working for the same company, the new pair never spoke before Sonoma Raceway, when Restivo helped Almirola when he won for RSS Racing. After Sonoma, the series had a bye week before picking up at Nashville Superspeedway.

Restivo was on vacation at the beach when he was told he would be the new crew chief of the No. 98 Ford. Since entering the sport in 2013 with NTS Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series, he served as an engineer for multiple race teams, including stops at Turner-Scott Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Herbst and Restivo traded phone calls to ensure that they were on the same page when the season resumed at Nashville.

“I kept telling him, ‘I know you don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I’m going to give you 110%, so let’s go win some races,”” Restivo recalled. “I feel like we hit on that.”

The No. 98 team started off strong with a runner-up finish at Nashville. Boswell helped set up the No. 98 car before Nashville as Herbst said Restivo was instructed not to change the setup.

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Beginning at the Chicago Street Race, Restivo began using his own philosophies. The No. 98 team scored three straight finishes of 20th or worse and backed that up with three finishes of sixth or better. The inconsistency continued late into the regular season; the No. 98 car suffered a suspension failure at Watkins Glen International, and Herbst was involved in a wreck at Daytona International Speedway, putting him below the elimination line. With finishes of sixth and 23rd to end the regular season, Herbst missed the playoffs.

Missing the playoffs is “extremely unacceptable” and a “failure” for one of Ford’s top teams in the Xfinity Series. Personnel changes were made, but Herbst and Restivo stuck together through hard times.

“It would have been easy for me to jump ship,” Herbst said. “A lot of people thought I was going to jump ship. I didn’t really want to because I knew how fast we could be and the potential we could have. The stats sheet don’t look good. If you look into my stats, they say what they say, but there are a lot of asterisks next to them.

“I think what Davin and I had and what Stewart-Haas had, [Greg Zipadelli] and everyone who stuck behind me and what we could build and do, I just wanted to see that through.”

With more experience atop the pit box and managing a race team for the first time, Restivo became more secure. He believes that was the biggest hurdle to overcome.

Riley Herbst celebrates in Victory Lane following his NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

By missing the postseason, Herbst solely chased race victories. He ended the season with a career-high five straight top-five finishes, including a dominant, 15-second victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his home track.

“We finally [won], and that calmed everyone down and gave everybody life,” Herbst said.

This week’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway marks one year since the pairing ran their first race together. During that time, both have become more familiar with each other and Herbst is in a much better playoff position than a season ago, ranking seventh in the regular season standings — one point behind fifth — 91 points above the elimination line.

“Riley has grown a lot over the last year,” Restivo said. “Going from Week 1 of us communicating on the radio to today, he’s way more mature, confident and his answers last year, there seemed to be some questionable comments. Now, he’s aged five years overnight. He’s starting to prep himself for the next level.”

Herbst has enjoyed working with Restivo and has also seen his growth in running a race team.

“Davin is a young, eager person who wants to make it to the next level and win on this level,” Herbst said. “It’s kind of like a rejuvenation and a shot in the arm for myself and the whole Xfinity shop.”

Restivo believes the turning point in the No. 98 team’s chemistry came in a Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. Herbst was in contention for the victory and gave Ryan Blaney the winning push.

“As soon as that race was over, he texted me and said, ‘Did you see that? That was awesome; I could have won that race. We’re going to go win one now,’ Restivo remembered. “Two weeks later, we showed up to Vegas and knocked it out of the park.”

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The No. 98 team has bounced back despite news surrounding SHR. The team announced on May 28 that it would close at the end of the season, affecting both the Cup and Xfinity Series teams. Herbst and Restivo both know they are trying to impress on the race track to secure a stable future.

Herbst has been in the rumor mill of where he could land in 2025. Ultimately, he just wants it to be enjoyable.

“I want to have fun,” Herbst added. “I want to go to the race track and feel what I’m doing this year, which I’m going to give it my best effort, and my best effort is going to be competitive, and I’m going to have a good time.”