AVONDALE, AZ — Not bad for a watermelon farmer from Florida. Ross Chastain just completed his first season with Trackhouse. He won his first career race at COTA, won his second career race in Talladega, had the highlight reel comeback to make the Championship 4 at Martinsville and came just short of a championship in his first playoff appearance.
The only way it gets better is some championship hardware. While this third-place finish in Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at the Phoenix Raceway, could have Chastain down in the dumps, he was surprisingly taking it well.
“Yeah, the emotions are surprisingly good,” he says. “Like I’m not sad. I’m not upset. I honestly thought when we started the playoffs that if we made it as I go through different scenarios, and I do think about what I’m going to think about ahead of time and think about what my thoughts are going to be and what I want them to be, and then I try to evaluate as I go.
“I thought if I — like this scenario, if I lost by a little bit, that I would be really upset, and I’m not. Like I’m so proud and so happy to give our first shot at these playoffs and at racing in the Cup Series with Trackhouse, and we just ran second.
“I’m full of gratitude. I can’t believe how good I feel. I finished second in the Truck Series at points in 2019 and was crying pulling in the pits off the track and just got it together kind of and then just lost my mind that night, but then had Xfinity and Cup, and it kind of took my mind off it.
“Right now, I just am proud of what we’ve done, and I feel so good. There were no — pulling in, there was just taking an audit on myself. There were no tears, no moment where I had to compose myself. It was just genuine good feeling from inside.
“I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy with the group I have. I was excited to get out and see my family, see my mom, see my dad and brother and see the whole group we’ve got.
“This is just the beginning. If it all ends today, it’s fine. Really, if I can never race a car again, it’s okay. It was all worth it, and I’m genuinely happy.
“Believe me when I say it, it’s true, because there’s other times where it eats you up as a competitor. But for some reason, it’s not that I’m complacent in second, but I feel good.
“Mr. Penske’s group had us covered all day, and Joey was the best car until the final run, then we had a real shot to race with him. But we didn’t have the balance in our car and the grip in our car all day to be that way.
“So I’m proud of the effort. Nobody got upset, nobody got flustered, we just kept working on our car all day.”
Chastain never was worried on Sunday. Despite starting last among the four Championship 4 members, he knew his No. 1 Chevrolet had the capability to move forward. That’s exactly what he did.
“I never believed that we were out of it,” said Chastain. “We started 25th and drove to the top 10 quickly, top 15 quickly and then top 10, and kind of raced around there, fought the balance of our car and knew if we got it right, we were going to have a shot.
Chastain was 13th at the first stage break and while in fuel save mode, was 11th in Stage 2. He unfortunately had contact with Chase Elliott on the Lap 199 restart, but it didn’t ruin his day like it did Elliott’s. Still, he had a lot of ground to make up to get to Joey Logano’s level.
Chastain was also gaining on pit road as he was +6 after his first three stops to the day. In the final stage, he was just kind of around but capitalized on Christopher Bell’s slow stop to end up 2nd among the 4 Championship 4 members after the final stop. He was sixth coming to the final restart. Logano was 3rd. Could he do it again?
Logano had a great car to gain the lead back with 29 to go. Chastain passed William Byron for 3rd on Lap 293 and had 19 laps to make up 3 seconds on Logano. He just couldn’t get close enough and had to settle for a third-place finish to end the season with five top four finishes over the final six weeks including four consecutive.
“On the final pit stop we got it right, fired off the best, together with a good pit stop, together with a good restart, with a good — however many laps we made to the end there, and that was the best we were,” he said of the ending.
“That’s what makes me so happy is we can just keep fighting and no one is ever upset. Like we keep our world small. We all do our jobs. Everybody at Trackhouse just put forth their best effort throughout the season, and we ended as strong as I’ve ever seen us.
“Everybody stepped it up in the sport, in the playoffs here at the end, and we did the same thing. I’m proud of that.”
Chastain started in this sport just trying to make ends meet and delay in the inevitable of working for his family’s watermelon business on a full-time basis.
It was an unlikely path to stardom and to this opportunity with Trackhouse that included taking a bet on himself with Ganassi, which led to a full-time Xfinity Series ride in 2019, only for it to get squandered away by the sponsor getting federally indited for a ponzi scheme and Chastain being left with nothing again. Only to win again in a new role with Kaulig and eventually getting called up to a Cup seat with that same Ganassi team only for Ganassi to sell his organization in the middle of the first year he was with them.
It led him to Trackhouse, the team that bought Ganassi and ended with a Final Four appearance.
“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.”
That’s why he’ll be back with another shot to win a title in 2023. This is the stability he’s longed searched for. He’s here. However, he doesn’t feel like he’s fully here yet. He had a great season, but Chastain notes that he has to improve during the offseason so he can make it back to this moment again next November.
“I’m confident in my ability, and I’m confident in my team,” he said. “But I don’t believe that if I just stop now and show back up to the Clash and just all that in the middle is nothing, nothing productive, that I will be good enough to race at the top level of this sport.
“I need to continue to evolve and be a better race car driver and study these guys and study myself, see what they’re doing, understand these cars better and understand the craft that it takes to drive at this level and to extrapolate the most out of these cars.
“I feel like I’m on a never-ending hamster wheel to be the best version of myself, and that’s not going to stop. I hope that I never lose that drive because I wake up and I think about how can I drive a race car fast.
“That is my main priority every day of my life now, and it has been for the past probably seven or eight years. It wasn’t at the beginning of my career. Before that it was how can I raise the funds to race, and before that was what do we need to do at the farm to grow a crop.
“You look at the progression of my mindset that comes natural when I wake up, and I feel like that I’m on a never-ending evolution to be better, and I can’t wait to get to work this off-season.
“Even though I have learned to marry that together with maybe some time away, some time not focused on this so that I am charged and ready — this is a long season, but I feel like we hit our stride early obviously with the speed, but it just didn’t falter. We did not — most of the missteps were on my part, not our team, and I want to clean that up.
“I’m telling you guys, I’m not — there’s so many things that I can do better. There’s so many things that I can clean up that would make lap time, first of all. It would clean up running position throughout the race and ultimately finishing position week in and week out.
“I’ll really rely on them, Josh and Scott and Dan, to guide me, make me the best version of myself that they can make me. I want to be coachable. I want to be the best, and I believe that the path there isn’t always what I want.
“I’m not always going to like what they want me to do. I’m not always going to enjoy the moments. But it’s going to be for the better, and I believe I have the best group to do that.”