Ross Chastain is a race-car driver who has seen it all during his time in NASCAR. But this year, he finds himself with the best opportunity of his racing career.
After making a staple of overachieving in underfunded equipment for nearly a decade, Chastain got the break he was hoping for last fall, when he was announced as the full-time driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the Cup Series. The opportunity obviously created additional internal pressure, one unlike any other.
“I don’t think I should be coasting right now by any means,” Chastain told NASCAR.com. “We’ve been preparing for this for several years here at CGR, trying to figure out how to make this happen. We didn’t know what year it was going to happen, and it might have been in 10 more years, the goal was to do this.”
In 2018, Chastain scored a three-race opportunity in the Xfinity Series for CGR by impressing team owner Chip Ganassi. In those three starts, the Florida native showcased his true potential by leading 180 of 200 laps en route to his first victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He backed that up with a runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway. And in his debut at Darlington Raceway, he won the pole before being wrecked by Kevin Harvick late in the race after leading 90 laps.
There was no doubt, at some point, Ganassi was going to find a place inside of his Cup shop for Chastain. But like the majority of Chastain’s NASCAR career, the 2021 season hasn’t been filled with dandelions, unicorns and roses. Instead, it has been much of the opposite.
Chastain kicked off the season by finishing seventh in the Daytona 500, despite being caught up in the last-lap fiery crash, triggered by Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. In the eight races since Daytona International Speedway, the No. 42 car has a best finish of 14th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while having two crash-related DNFs at the Daytona Road Course and Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track.
“Humbling,” Chastain said of his 2021 season. “We’re just building and trying to compete at the top level of our sport. There are a lot of things I’ve been able to learn and try to implement into the next week. We learn on the fly in the race every week.”
Admittedly so, Chastain has been having to “really grasp” what makes the Cup cars go fast. Because of SMT data, he and the team have pinpointed bad habits the driver makes, something he said he has struggled with his whole racing career.
“When I enter the corner, I turn left and then I immediately turn right and then I turn back left and I immediately turn back right, jerk the wheel all the way down into the corner,” Chastain said. “I’m just not smooth putting the wheel into it. It’s always been a problem and I’m trying to make sure I don’t spin out on entry, so I’m constantly catching the car from getting too sideways.”
But Kurt Busch, veteran Cup driver and the 2004 Cup Series champion, has also struggled at CGR this season. The No. 1 team has just a pair of top 10s to its credit, coming off seasons of 18 and 19 top-10 finishes between 2019-20, respectively.
Known to be an ultra-consistent driver, Busch’s 2021 statistics are a tad concerning due to the lack of speed throughout CGR in the first quarter of the season.
“That’s where the humbling part comes in because I’m a race-car driver, and I go on track to do the best I can and put in the effort to prepare and be ready for when we go on track,” Chastain said. “The speed and results just haven’t been there. There have been things I’ve struggled with that have kept us from competing at the very front.”
Chastain vows the team will not let up. After all, CGR is home to nearly 200 employees and coming off back-to-back years with at least one of its teams making the Round of 8 in the postseason.
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Members of the CGR management team, including Ganassi, have told Chastain multiple times this season to “just go drive,” assuring him everyone is doing their respective job.
“The biggest thing, as we’ve gotten into the season, is guys like Doug Duchardt (chief operating officer), Tony Lunders (competition manager), even my internal crew on the 42 with my crew chief Phil Surgen,” Chastain said. “Their biggest feedback to me is, ‘Let everybody do their jobs, you do yours and we’ll be fine. Tell us what you need, be ready to drive the car at 100% or as close to your full capacity every week.’”
And since Las Vegas, Chastain has seen an uptick in performance, with the stat sheet speaking for itself: four top 20s in the last five races.
“We’re on a path and you’re going to keep seeing it,” he said. “What I feel in the car hasn’t translated to the results just yet, but from Las Vegas to now, we’ve definitely moved the needle.”
Entering Sunday’s wild-card race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Chastain sits 24th in the championship standings, 62 markers outside the bubble. Currently, it is Busch who hand onto the coveted 16th seed.
Even with the points deficit, the primary goal for Chastain hasn’t changed from the start of the year: win a race.
“That’s still the goal, that has to be the goal,” Chastain said. “It’s what gets us all out of bed. (Chip Ganassi Racing) wakes up competitors. That’s what drives us to do this.
“We’re racing cars for a living, you can take the easy street, but we’re not. We’re going to figure this stuff out.”
In 88 career Cup starts, Chastain has picked up both of his top-10 finishes at superspeedway tracks.