Chastain bet on himself in 2018 and in a wild set of circumstances, leads him on the verge of a Cup championship in Phoenix

All he wanted was a chance. All Trackhouse Racing wanted was a chance. It was a perfect match. However, before you can get to Ross Chastain and Trackhouse making their first Championship 4 appearance in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), 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. It was that way until the winter of 2017.

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 back in March in COTA after earning his first career Cup victory. “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.

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?

“Know what?

“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.”

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 23: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Kubota Chevrolet, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem – WATTS Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 23, 2022 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Trackhouse had acquired not one, but both of Chip Ganassi Racing’s charters as well as his entire team. Ganassi, was getting out of NASCAR and Trackhouse is taking over.

“My NASCAR team was not for sale,” Chip Ganassi said when the sale was announced. “Justin (Marks) simply came to me with a great offer and an even better vision. As everyone knows, I care deeply for my employees so selling to someone like Justin who is part of the CGR family make the reality of selling much easier.

“At first, it surprised me a little bit, but I have to say that – after thinking about it for a while – it very much reminded me of about 20 years ago, when I was talking to Felix Sabates about getting involved in NASCAR. I felt like there’s a lot of young, energetic thought being put into what Justin was saying.

“With all the new blood that seems to be coming into the sport now, with Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin and maybe [Brad] Keselowski, and Tony Stewart has his team, Jeff Gordon’s back involved… all these sorts of things.

Marks, raced 23 times in the Xfinity Series for Ganassi between 2015 and 2018. He won a race for them in 2016 at  Mid-Ohio. So, the two have a friendship and history together.

Plus, Marks’ team in Trackhouse has financial capital from Pitbull as well as Chevrolet cars which is what Ganassi also has which makes this even more seamless.

“This process took several weeks and I want to thank Chip (Ganassi) for being so open and candid with me every step of the journey,” Marks said. “Chip has built an iconic motorsports empire and the Ganassi brand is globally recognized as a winner in the auto racing industry.”

So, with a second charter, who would be the driver? Suarez was obviously coming back. Would it be Chastain, Kurt Busch or someone else?

That’s where that conversation between Chastain and Grubb came from.

“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,” Chastain said.

“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 at Trackhouse. And I think we’ve really just opened a door for him and Phil and the 1 team moving forward.”

However, at that time, Chastain wasn’t so sure. So, he took a break from that test to reach out to Marks.

“It was important to just — I have a good group around me, and it was like, What do we do? I had to fight off the fear,” Chastain said. “They asked at the wheel force test, Are you ready to get back in? I said, No, I need ten minutes. Ten turned into 30. They’re, like, We’ve got to get going. I said, You don’t want me driving your car right now.

“Once I sent the text — this sounds funny. I’ve done all I can do. He knows. He will see it when he sees it, but I still have a job to do here, so we finished out the day.”

As far as that message?

“I want this.”

In their first season together and the first as a two-car operation at Trackhouse, they were winners just six races in and now Trackhouse and Chastain are in the Championship 4.

“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. 

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.”

Chastain is happy to be in this moment but the season isn’t done yet. The goal is to still win a championship.

“It’s just a life goal, a career accomplishment, “he says. “Just to make it to the Cup Series, be here competing with my heroes. I feel like that no matter what, this season is going to be a success, but in the moments where I hit the wall at the Roval and I realized this could all be gone and we could not transfer, it hurts, and I don’t want that. I’m a racer, and I want the next thing.

“I feel confident in our group. We just continue to arrive on the scene of the Cup Series, and I wouldn’t want to be doing it with anybody else.”

Chastain now reflects on where he was just a few years ago. He was competing with smaller teams just hoping to finish with a lap or two of the leader. Now, he’s got a 1-in-4 shot at a championship a week from now.

“Well, I hope everybody remembers that two years ago in the fall of 2020, I went down to the Southern 500 with Spire Motorsports,” Chastain continued. “It was a big deal for us to race with sticker tires on. We had a podcast sponsoring the car. It was a big deal to beat one car. Single-digit laps down. That was two years ago at the Southern 500. To be here fighting for a championship now, it’s so surreal.

“When I make mistakes on track, I hope everybody remembers two years ago I was out here seven laps down. Now Trackhouse, Chip Ganassi last year giving me an opportunity there in the 42, Doug Duchardt, everybody there.

“Ty Norris and Justin Marks and Pitbull to have this vision give Daniel and I everything we need. Daniel Suarez, an incredible teammate.

“I just can’t not believe that we have a chance to go fight for a championship. All we ask for is a chance. We kept our world small this year so far. We’ll do the same thing going to Phoenix.”

Chastain has three consecutive top 5 finishes heading to Phoenix and was third there this past spring. He has 6 top 7’s in his last 8 races at that.

“I think that one of the things that we talk about in the building here is just that we want a chance,” Marks said. “All we want is a chance. All we want is an opportunity. I came into this race season with a personal goal. This wasn’t a goal that was socialized publicly or even within the walls of our company, but it was just inside me, is I just wanted to put one car in the playoffs. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to put one car in the playoffs.

“And now for us to be kind of at this point, you know, a sentiment is like, well, you’re sort of playing with house money because we’re sort of beyond all of our expectations right now. But that doesn’t for a second mean that these guys right down here in the shop aren’t working on that car harder than they’ve worked on a car all year because we’ve got an opportunity to go to Phoenix Raceway and win a NASCAR Cup championship.

“I think you’re right in the sense that sort of no matter what happens down there, this has been an incredibly successful debut season for Trackhouse. I call it our debut season because it’s our first year on our own truly. I think everybody in the building is blown away by seeing every weekend on the racetrack the opportunity that we have in this sport, and to be in this conversation, like I really wanted to do this press conference, just so everybody listening right now — last week I was nervous about Martinsville because I just so badly at this point now wanted to go to Phoenix with Trackhouse being a part of the story. I really wanted that.

“Now we have that, which is amazing.

“I said it at lunch today. I said, Now it’s easy. Now we’ve just got to try to go win a race. We’ve just got to beat three guys.

“But to your specific question, no matter what happens, it’s going to be — we’re going to look back as an absolutely barnstorming, incredible debut season for this company, and we’re just going to try to win it.”

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