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December 1, 2022

NASCAR notebook: Chastain still smiling, what hurt Bell in finale and Blaney’s offseason checklist

ross chastain talks to reporters
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Even in the immediate moments after Ross Chastain finished out the 2022 championship finale – finishing runner-up to new NASCAR Cup Series champ Joey Logano in the race – the 29-year-old Floridian insisted he was absolutely thrilled with the season.

The driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet earned his first two career NASCAR Cup Series victories (at Circuit of The Americas and Talladega Superspeedway) and was a legitimate championship threat the entire season from Daytona to Phoenix.

And, when he had to do something drastic to earn one of only four championship berths in the Phoenix title race, Chastain performed a move on the last half of the last lap at Martinsville Speedway to take that position. Still needing to make up positions on the final lap, he turned his Chevy into the outside wall and floored it – riding the wall and passing five cars to earn the final Playoff transfer position by a single-point over veteran Denny Hamlin and setting a track record in his wake.

Although Logano dominated the season finale en route to his second series title, Chastain secured career-highs in wins (2), top-fives (15) and top-10s (21). He led 692 laps in 2022 after leading only 76 laps in his previous five years racing in the series.

It all made for quite the “Cinderella story” for a young driver in his first year with a competitive team in NASCAR’s premier series – a racer from tiny Alva, Florida where his family operates a watermelon farm starring on the world stage.

Yet, Chastain said with a smile Thursday, his return home to his Florida farm property in the weeks immediately after the season was a lot less glamorous than many would have expected. He acknowledged, however, his work in 2022 raised the interest level of those he grew up with and has absolutely gained a lot of fans thanks to his performance all season and certainly with his “Martinsville Miracle.”

Chastain was with his younger brother Chad Chastain at a race recently – helping work on the car and then spotting for Chad during the race. He said he appreciated the number of people approaching him for attaboys and handshakes even if he had to remind them, he was working the race. He still hasn’t had a chance to read or even answer all the texts he’s received post-Martinsville.

Back at home in rural Southwestern Florida, however, Chastain is afforded the chance to relax and take it all in.

“It’s just home so people that I know were just like, great season, let’s go to lunch,” Chastain recalled with a smile. “Nothing too crazy. They want to talk about Martinsville and talk a little about the win at COTA and Talladega, but pretty normal. It’s the most normal of any place I go.”

RELATED: Logano celebrated at Nashville Champion’s Week

Eleventh-hour dramatics may have hurt Christopher Bell in season finale

With two victories in must-win situations in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Christopher Bell stole his share of headlines and earned a spot in the Championship 4.

But his last-minute heroics – particularly in the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway – may have put the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at a disadvantage compared with series champion Joey Logano, who won the first Round of 8 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and had two extra weeks to prepare for the Championship Race at Phoenix.

“That’s very interesting, because I had the exact same circumstances in my two Xfinity years,” said Bell, who competed for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2018 and 2019. “My first year I didn’t make it till the last race at Phoenix, and then in my second year, I won the first race at Texas.

“It definitely changes your mindset and your preparation for the event. Joey had multiple weeks to prepare for that event (the season finale). The car, I’m assuming, was sitting there getting all the Phoenix tune-up on it, where our car … I don’t know … I definitely did not think it was a disadvantage for him to be able to focus on that for a number of weeks.”

Winning at Martinsville, however, had its own rewards for Bell – not the least of which is the grandfather clock trophy that goes with the victory.

“The house that I live in, we’ve just tried to keep my special trophies there, and the Martinsville clock is one that got to (be there),” Bell said.

Ryan Blaney is making a list and checking it twice-with his crew chief

After two enjoyable weeks in the offseason, Ryan Blaney was eager to return to racing. Because he’s not scheduled for any offseason testing, however, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford won’t be back in his car until February.

That doesn’t mean Blaney can’t work on ways to improve from a season where he qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs on points and finished eighth in the final standings.

“I make a list at the end of the year,” Blaney said. “OK, what did we do well? What did we struggle with? And like what are your goals to get better? What do you really want to improve?

“Me and (crew chief) Jonathan (Hassler) sat down last week and went through our list of notes, and like where do we want to get better and improve at, and what did we do well and can still build off of?

“That stuff to me is always really helpful. You look back on the year, and you’re like, ‘Well, we screwed up in this situation. Let’s jot that down and let’s try to figure out a different way. If that comes up again, let’s change it.'”

One race Blaney would like to change is the season-opening Daytona 500, where he had a chance to win on the last lap but finished fourth as rookie teammate Austin Cindric took the checkered flag.

“The one that stings the most is the 500, because we’ve been so close to that thing for years,” Blaney said. “That one stings the most, but I try to get over that stuff really quick.”