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Ross Chastain is making the most of his opportunity

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ross Chastain tells an honest and surreal story of realizing his first victory in one of NASCAR’s major series — a dominating win in last Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He said he and his friends stayed at the Vegas track as the skies darkened. After all the media obligations and a debriefing with the Chip Ganassi Racing team he competed for at Las Vegas, Chastain ventured back to Victory Lane to cherish this first. He signed autographs for some of the track crew working into the night to set up for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race the next day, then he returned to his hotel and grabbed a quick dinner before bed.

RELATED: Chastain showcased in our Xfinity Series regular-season superlatives

“I woke up Sunday before my alarm went off and was just kinda waking up when 20 or 30 seconds later I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we won yesterday,’  Chastain recalled. “It hit me. I sat up out of the bed, like ‘Holy cow, we did it.’ Just waking up knowing that. That was cool.”

Even better, however, is that Chastain gets another great shot at winning in this week’s Xfinity Series Playoffs opener, Friday’s Go Bowling 250 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The 25-year old Floridian will make his third and final scheduled start for Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet this season then finish out the Playoffs with his South Carolina-based JD Motorsports team in the No. 4 Chevrolet.

It’s the first time Chastain has qualified for the Xfinity Series Playoffs, and with his victory last week at Vegas, he starts his championship run ranked sixth — 29 points behind five-time race winner and regular season champion Justin Allgaier. Before the Vegas race, he was ranked 11th of the 12 drivers. Eight competitors advance to the next round.

Although Chastain has immediately made good on his first two opportunities with Ganassi — leading 90 laps at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway before an accident — he has been adamant in sharing the positivity with his JD Motorsports team. Team owners Johnny Davis and Gary Keller were among the first in Vegas’ Victory Lane to congratulate him and enjoy the exclamation mark-type day.

Chastain’s previous career-best outing in the Xfinity Series was a fourth place at Iowa – something he did both this spring and last year driving for JD Motorsports. He has three top-fives in 132 races. His seven top-10s in 2018 is already double the top-10 output in any of his previous three years of full-time series competition.

MORE: Get to know the 2018 Xfinity Series Playoff drivers

And as exciting as the Ganassi opportunity has been for Chastain, he is adamant that his goal is always to win, no matter the car, no matter the expectation.

“I just want to run and be competitive in every race, whatever that means, get the most out of the car I can,” Chastain said. “I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten everything out of the Ganassi car. It’s just such a different animal than what I’ve ever done — all the limits pushed and what they expect the driver to push; pit road entry and exit, my input on wheels and pedals. It’s so aggressive compared to the No. 4 car.”

In fact, this is the first season Chastain says his smaller-budgeted JD Motorsports team has been able to bring a bonafide back-up to the track each week. And he concedes, maybe having to be so careful with equipment both helped and hindered him. Being told to push the limits while in the Ganassi driver’s seat was a new experience compared to the more careful manner he has driven his other car – always negotiating the car’s fine line between potential and peril.

“It’s a tough balance because both cars call for different things on track and on pit road,” Chastain said. “It’s tough to balance for sure.”

But a chance that he is so grateful to have. So grateful, in fact, he isn’t drawing a paycheck for his Ganassi work but instead hoping his performance may lead to other opportunities down the road. It’s a throwback employment lesson to earlier decades in NASCAR competition and by the look of things, a good bet for Chastain.

He’s certainly been given a unique platform to show his skills from the notoriously tough Darlington circuit, to the Las Vegas 1.5-miler to this week at the 0.75-mile Richmond track where his previous best is 15th back in 2015.

RECAP: Ross Chastain’s victory at Las Vegas

You can hear the excitement and passion listening to Chastain talk about his positive twist of fate. He remains so loyal to his full-time JD Motorsports team, he wanted a photo of both the Ganassi car and his JDM car together at Vegas.

“Carpe diem” – seize the day – hasn’t just been an expression to Chastain, it’s how he’s lived his life of late.

“They expect a lot,” Chastain said of Chip Ganassi Racing. “They expect to win and to run good in practice and qualifying and I’ve been the weak link in a lot of ways, but luckily by the time of the race, I’ve gotten it turned around.”

He paused, “But the races have went well.”

“It’s been pretty surreal. It’s exciting to think we go to Richmond with another shot to win and that’s all I can ask for.”