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Ross Chastain remains encouraged after scrape with Hamlin in final Darlington dash

Ross Chastain has finished runner-up four times this season, including twice in the last three NASCAR Xfinity Series races — all without a win. Saturday’s latest result at rugged Darlington Raceway added to that total with a dramatic twist.

The Kaulig Racing driver went toe-to-toe with Cup Series visitor Denny Hamlin in a late-race slugfest for the victory, but he couldn’t avoid Hamlin’s car in a contest of crossover moves on the next-to-last lap. Brandon Jones was the beneficiary, slipping by both contenders at the end of Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 for his third win of the season.

RELATED: Brandon Jones slips by late fracas | Race results

Chastain had reason to feel either justified anger or a resigned exasperation post-race as his winless streak inched deeper into the regular season, on the heels of a disheartening race the previous week at Daytona. Instead, he left with optimism after pressing a Cup Series title contender to the limit and sealing a playoff spot by virtue of his third-place rank in the points standings.

“It’s great. I got out of the car smiling,” said Chastain, who led 43 of the 147 laps. “I really am proud of the effort of the increase in speed of the car, and (spotter) Tyler Green is feeding me the right information of where Denny was, and then just driving the car, I probably hit the wall 20 times in that last run and never compromised leading.”

Chastain and Hamlin separated themselves from the pack in the final green-flag run to the checkered flag. Chastain acknowledged that Hamlin had the faster car down the stretch, and he held off his advances by occupying Hamlin’s groove of choice.

The strategy worked until the next-to-last lap, when Hamlin made his boldest try to take command. Chastain was unable to cross up his rival through Turns 3 and 4 and the two collided as they impacted the outside wall, allowing Jones to scoot by. “I should’ve gotten that crossover … I don’t know, a couple of car-lengths sooner, and I didn’t,” Chastain said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ll take away.”

Saturday’s race still qualified as a rebound for Chastain, especially after a tension-fraught final lap last weekend at Daytona International Speedway where Chastain and teammate AJ Allmendinger crashed while vying for the lead. Justin Haley, another Kaulig teammate, skated past them to win, but the outcome posed a potential threat to the upstart organization’s team harmony.

Instead, Chastain said a team “fellowship” with owner Matt Kaulig, team president Chris Rice and the three drivers this week helped to soothe any internal fractions.

“We just didn’t want to let it get worse and mess up what we have on superspeedways, but just as people and as friends,” Chastain said. “We spent a little time together and had a good time, and so it was tough, though, because I was the one that made the mistake.”

For that part of the team-chemistry dynamic, enter Rice, who has helped to buoy Chastain’s spirits throughout.

“He was just pumped,” Chastain said of the Kaulig exec’s post-race reaction Saturday. “He was with me a lot this week and he kept telling me, ‘I’m not gonna let you get down, I’m not gonna let you get down,’ but I was down. I mean, I messed up last week — bad. Really bad. He was just there to hand me a room-temperature bottle of water and tell me it was cold and tell me it was going to be alright. Just like the bottle of water wasn’t cold, I know all’s not going to be alright.

“We want to win, but he was just there to keep picking me up. He did a really good job this week, because if I’d have handled it the way I would’ve, I’d have went and hid somewhere until I had to come here and not talked to anybody, and that’s not the way to handle it.”