DARLINGTON, S.C. — Ross Chastain held his head high as fireworks went off around the track following Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Chastain finished tops among non-playoff drivers as the NASCAR Cup Series opened up its 10-race postseason stretch at the 1.366-mile South Carolina oval. The third-place result validated that Chastain and the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team could be closing in on a potential race victory before Trackhouse Racing absorbs the operation in 2022 and Chastain becomes the second driver alongside Daniel Suarez.
But it was who Chastain was racing against at the end that added an extra pep to his step — Kyle Larson.
“It was really cool to say we were close on speed to the 5 car,” Chastain said. “That’s crazy. We were close at Nashville (Superspeedway) and we were close here. Similar package, you know, you see a trend. So, we’ll keep working on that.”
The race restarted for the final time on Lap 331 of the 367-lap, 500-mile marathon event, and Chastain elected to take the inside lane with the Choose Rule, which lost him a couple of spots and lined him up with a row separating him from race winner Denny Hamlin and Larson at the front. But it was lessons learned from earlier in the race that moved him to make that split-second decision.
“Earlier in the race, I restarted second next to Kyle and I just lit ’em up and I’ve struggled with that literally my entire career,” Chastain said. “I’ve been working at it but I just didn’t get a good launch, then I was just very paranoid because I was running third, took second and then I went back to sixth. I thought I would cut my losses the rest of the night. Made a pact with myself then and I had to stick to it because I said I was going to take third if I ever had the opportunity again, and I did.”
Chastain described that he was “just on ice” on the outside groove, so a potential pass on Larson for second in the closing laps had to have happened in the bottom groove. On top of that, it was his prowess on restarts that admittedly needs work.
“It wasn’t the tire wear, it was what’s best for me,” Chastain said. “The bottom was the best for me, even though I gave up a row and gave up a spot I know looking at the sheet, but we would have been in fifth or sixth if I had taken the outside. I’ve got to get better at restarts.”
The top-five result was Chastain’s third of the 2021 season and the first since his second place in July at Nashville.