AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ross Chastain was sure that coming close but falling short in pursuit of his first NASCAR Cup Series championship would sting.
Sunday afternoon saw part of that come to fruition: A third-place effort around Phoenix Raceway just 1.268 seconds off the back bumper of race and title winner Joey Logano left Chastain a runner-up in the championship race. Yet there was little bitterness — if any at all — as he took to the media center podium shortly after nearly conquering one of his life goals.
“The emotions are surprisingly good,” Chastain said. “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 — 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.”
A dream season ended two spots short on the 1-mile desert oval. But the reflection of his journey — an eighth-generation watermelon farmer who rose to the NASCAR national series level 11 years ago and clawed through numerous underfunded rides all the way to a title-contending effort at the sport’s pinnacle — didn’t leave Chastain wallowing.
“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,” Chastain said. “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 I’m on a never-ending evolution to be better, and I can’t wait to get to work this offseason.”
His efforts from 2021 to 2022 were extremely fruitful, producing his first two Cup Series victories at Circuit of The Americas and Talladega Superspeedway. The last year and a half has been a roller coaster of the aforementioned journey.
In June 2021, Chastain was at Dover Motor Speedway when he was texted the news that Justin Marks was purchasing Chip Ganassi Racing, where Chastain was employed as the driver of its No. 42 Chevrolet. With him was Darian Grubb, the Director of Performance for CGR then and now the same for Trackhouse.
Their hearts sank, burdened with the uncertainty, but that moment proved pivotal for two future Trackhouse employees.
“I’d say that was a big moment for himself and me personally,” Grubb told NASCAR.com, “because we were able to bond by sharing that news with each other at a test and trying to figure out what we’re going to do and just have each other’s back and know when we’re gonna go forward with it. Neither one of us knew at that point, whether we’re gonna make it and we both did. Now we’re here.”
So, too, is Chastain’s crew chief Phil Surgen. The duo finished 20th in points a season ago, netting the first three top-five finishes of Chastain’s career in addition to eight top 10s. This year, those numbers exploded — two wins punctuating series-bests in top fives (15) and top 10s (21).
“We had the opportunity to build the team from the ground up,” Surgen told NASCAR.com. “Me and Ross had worked together before. We absorbed a lot of the Ganassi employees, which I had a ton of confidence in and it’s been great. It’s been a great journey, just kind of growing and building together.”
The weight of the questions ahead lingered heavily on Chastain’s mind after the 2021 finale — a feeling he recalled clearly Sunday afternoon.
“I look at when we pulled down the backstretch 20th in the points last year with the 42, had a cooler full of beverages and, you know, walked away not knowing what the future was,” Chastain said. “We knew that tomorrow morning, Monday morning, we were walking in with new ownership and Chip (Ganassi) and Doug Duchardt and so many people that we had bet on being there for a long time in that 42 car, it was their time to step away. And there was a lot of unknowns.
“And you know, to look back and think we ran (14th) in this race, I believe, and 20th in driver points, to come back and run third today and second in the spring and fight for a championship, we’re only going to get better.”
Chastain was quick to credit the Next Gen car for Trackhouse’s immediate competitive nature, particularly in adding a second team to what was a single-car operation out of the Richard Childress Racing camp for Daniel Suárez in 2021.
“They took a big leap of faith with this car, the France family and NASCAR did,” Chastain said. “Obviously I’m really thankful for that because it put Trackhouse into existence, and it gave us kind of the reason that we’ve been able to be successful.”
The enthusiasm surrounding the No. 1 team’s success in its inaugural year already appears to be permeating the 2023 preparation.
“To ultimately get the results and be here to fight and finish second in the championship’s just really reassuring, confidence-building for next year. And, you know, largely our team is going to be the same and I can’t wait for next season.”