AUSTIN, TX — Before you get to Ross Chastain beating Alex Bowman by 1.331-seconds in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas, you first have to go back to the 2014 season. Chastain, was just racing whatever he could find work in. The watermelon farmer from Florida ran two races for RBR Enterprises in the Truck Series. He ran one for Win-Tron Racing. He’d finish 30th, 14th and 11th respectively. He’d also run two races for Hattori Racing Enterprises in the K&N Series. He finished sixth and 17th respectively in them. He found Xfinity Series work for three teams. He ran seven races with a best finish of 10th.
That’s how his early career in the sport would look.
Bowman, was in his first full-time season with BK Racing. A very underfunded team but he was a Cup driver. He finished 35th in the final standings after scoring 26 finishes of the 36 being 30th or worse. A year later, he moved onto another small team at Tommy Baldwin Racing. He had 1 top 20 but was 33rd in the final standings. 23 of the 35 races (DNQ at Daytona) were 30th or worse.
He’d find out in a Taco Bell drive through while waiting for his order on social media that he wasn’t going to be back with TBR for 2016. While it was crushing, it was a blessing in disguise.
Bowman, was a talented driver but racing for teams with cars that could barely sniff the top 25 wasn’t getting him anywhere. So he had to forge his own path. He became a Chevrolet test driver. That landed him some seat time with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. 5 straight top 10’s in his limited work got him noticed. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out a few races due to concussion like symptoms, he handpicked Bowman as his replacement.
Bowman didn’t let up. He showed his speed and promise. But, Earnhardt Jr. was going to be back for 2017 and Bowman’s services were now being wanted elsewhere. Would he leave this Chevy opportunity for a second chance of being a full-time driver again?
He bet on himself and a chance later. He stayed as a test driver and it would pay off. Earnhardt Jr. would announce the 2017 season would be his last and recommended Bowman as his full time replacement for 2018. Rick Hendrick had a coveted seat but stayed in house with Bowman.
The rest is history. He’s never qualified off the front row for the Daytona 500 in this seat, has won 7 races and been a playoff driver each season.
On Sunday, he had a front row seat for Chastain’s first career Cup triumph. He too has had a similar path to having to bet on himself to get to a Cup seat.
Chastain knew he had a lot of talent and could make it in the sport, but if he continued on the path that he was going down, there’s no way anyone else would know of his talents. So, he bet on himself.
So, instead of returning to a full season ride in an underfunded Xfinity Series team in 2018, he decided to take his money to Chip Ganassi Racing for what initially started off as a three race deal. He’d run Darlington for them on Labor Day weekend, Vegas two weeks later then Richmond a week after that.
“Several years ago I just wanted to — I thought I had found my niche in the sport,” Chastain said in COTA on Sunday. “I thought I found a comfortable spot. I thought I could make a living. It wasn’t glamorous by any means, but it was a way to stay in the sport that I loved and do what I loved.
“And I was preparing myself to get more involved with the farm back home and probably live in Florida more, travel to the races on the weekends, and not put a lot of effort, put more effort into the farm during the week, and then come back to the races.
“I was a few years out from that, but I had come to terms with that, and then in 2018 that all changed.”
His career rode on those three races. If he looked pedestrian, then he’d likely never get a shot that it took in the big leagues with the top teams. At that time, Chastain was 25. He’d turn 26 in December. Most top teams have good drivers already in place, so they go with youth to groom them to replace the veterans when contracts lined up.
Chastain was stuck in the middle. Wait too much longer and he’d get passed over. So, he took his chance then. It paid off.
He won the pole in Darlington, swept both stages and led the most laps but had an incident towards the end with Kevin Harvick and finished 25th. That proved he had the speed that it took, but did he have the patience and know how to get it done in the end?
Vegas though, was the spot it came full circle. He’d win and stamp his name on the top teams’ radar. This was the site it happened. Just like Sunday was in the Pennzoil 400.
Chastain, would finish runner-up a week later in Richmond would earned him two more opportunities later in the year. He’d finish 10th in Kansas and second in Texas that season to earn him three top two’s in five tries. As a result, Ganassi signed him for a full season in 2019 to compete for them in this car in the Xfinity Series.
That’s where another fork in the road came. The main sponsor, DC Solar, was in deep trouble from a federal investigation and all that hardwork and betting on himself fell flat. Ganassi, lost their sponsor and in turn had to shut down the Xfinity program.
Luckily though, Ganassi likes winners and saw the value of Chastain. So, he honored his agreement and commitment to Chastain and kept him under contract while finding him a ride with Kaulig Racing. He’d win in Daytona that July and that would lead to a full-time opportunity with Kaulig in 2020. He’d make the playoffs that year and show exactly what he could do. With an open Cup car for Ganassi in 2021, he was brought up to the big show.
Unfortunately, it was a steep learning curve for Chastain as he struggled some. He had some highlights but finished 20th in the final standings. Mid summer, Ganassi sold his team to Trackhouse. Chastain had another fork in the road. What would his future be?
“I looked over at Darrian Grubb, who was sitting next to me,” Chastain said of his feelings at that time of the announcement. “We were at the wheel force test.
“I said, do you know?
“He is, like — I looked at him.
“He said, What’s wrong? I said, Do you know?
“I showed him the text, and he is, like, I got to make a call. Then I made a call. Yeah, it’s for real.
“Once I knew it was Justin, I knew I had a shot, but I’ve been around enough to know, in the small scale I’ve seen the business side of this, and I know the numbers that it takes to fund these deals. I just didn’t know what this meant.
“Yeah, there was some definite questions, and the answer I got was some questions just aren’t ready to be answered.
“No, did I think I would never win a Cup race? That thought did not cross my mind. I just didn’t know if I would ever — more it was I didn’t know if I would ever drive in Cup again.”
Luckily, Marks knew Chastain was his driver all along.
“So it was always Ross,” Marks said. “That’s what I told him when he got out of the car: It was always you. When the Ganassi buy-out happened, and he texted me as I got off of the press conference stage of the Hall of Fame, and he just wrote, “I want this.” He had to be patient with me while I let the dust settle, but we all were huge, huge believers in Ross’ talent.
“We knew what he was capable of doing, and he has proved it the last month at Trackhouse. And I think we’ve really just opened a door for him and Phil and the 1 team moving forward.”
Now, six races together, Chastain has 4 top 3 finishes including a win and two runner-ups.
“There is no right or wrong way to do this,” Chastain said. “You see guys every year take a different path. If you don’t have the resources to go rent or get in or you’re not hired to drive something really good and in the lower series, it’s just the economics of this sport. You kind of have to bring something.
“Wherever you can plug in, I mean, I’m a proponent of starting out. You race. You just race everything you can. As long as you’re at the track, you have a chance to — you just never know, right? I’ve carried around an extra set of driving stuff in case somebody got sick, and I’ve blown up in races and started races and then gotten in somebody else’s truck to finish the race for them.
“You just have to keep going. If you are bought in — you have to buy in. You have to live in Mooresville or the area. You just have to be there.
“Something comes up and you meet a crew chief and run into him at lunch, and he is, like, Hey, we don’t have a driver or his money fell through. I don’t have anything, but I’ll drive it. That’s how the Mario — that’s how the DGM deal.
“That’s how I drove for Mario Gosselin yesterday was last Friday we’re headed to Atlanta, and he is looking for somebody with some sponsorship, and I’m, like, well, I don’t have anything, but I’ll drive it. He was, like, You’ll drive it? Yeah. Mario, yeah, I want to race. I want to race.
“He couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t believe that he let me drive. I think that it’s surreal that I get to drive race cars for a living, so if you are able to do that in this sport, if you can pay your bills, and you have to give up a lot. You have to give up a personal life.
“Some guys balance both. I’ve never been able to balance both. I’m 29 and single and just chasing race cars. I know it sounds silly to say, but that’s a conscious effort to do that.”