FONTANA, Calif. – NASCAR Cup Series cars took the green flag for Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway with no prior laps put down this weekend after both practice and qualifying were washed out from Saturday’s heavy rain. The only on-track activity for the season so far came in an exhibition race on a quarter-mile, temporary track inside a stadium that has held a range of events from the Olympics to the World Series, followed by the 65th Daytona 500 at the World Center of Racing … not exactly the kind of notebooks that translate to the 2-mile high banks in Southern California.
Despite all that, No. 1 Chevrolet driver Ross Chastain knew he had a car capable of winning coming around Turn 1 … of Lap 1.
And he almost did.
“Yeah, it’s incredible; we drove it in Turn 1, Lap 1 and passed like two or three cars and I was like ‘OK, this is gonna be really good,” Chastain said on pit road after finishing third in Sunday’s 400-miler. “And we just managed the race well, I thought we did a lot of things … that we did everything right. Balance-wise or any race adjustments, I don’t think we could have done any better. … Besides winning today, I couldn’t be much happier with how these two races have went. I love it. I’m not sure what it says other than we’re learning and we’re improving and we’ve got a long way to go.”
If Chastain and Trackhouse Racing have a long way to go from here, watch out. The Florida native nearly put the No. 1 in Victory Lane but was unable to reel in the No. 8 Chevrolet in the closing laps as Busch pulled away and Chase Elliott scooted by for second.
Chastain still led a race-high 91 laps en route to his third-place finish and, oh yeah, his teammate Daniel Suárez was right behind him on the results sheet in fourth. It’s the second consecutive race to open the year that the duo has turned in dual top-10 finishes, and it kind of begs the question if Trackhouse is the – admittedly early – team to beat in 2023.
“You know, I’m very, very proud of everyone at Trackhouse; we have fast race cars no matter where we go and it’s a lot of fun,” Suárez told NASCAR.com on pit road after his fourth-place finish. “That’s thanks to all the men and women here at the track and also back at the shop. We have to continue to build because there are a few things that I felt like I could have done better. I don’t feel like we had the best car, but we had a car that if we were in the right situation was probably capable of winning the race, so we just have to continue to build. There is no perfection here. You know there is always room for improvement, so I will have to continue to be better and I’m sure that next week we’re going to have another shot.”
Trackhouse’s ascension has been remarkable to watch happen in real time, evolving from a fledgling, one-car startup operation to a two-car, championship-ready powerhouse faster than team co-owner Pitbull can say “fireball.”
For years now, it’s felt like there was a core four of teams capable of being elite for a whole season – Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing – but clearly, a fifth wheel has entered the equation, and Trackhouse appears dead set on disrupting the party. It could only be a matter of time before it’s the belle of the ball.
“I don’t think there is a limit (to our potential),” Suárez continued. “I think the limit, we’re gonna push ourselves to the limit and we shouldn’t even put up limits. You know, we have to continue to build and continue to get better, but you know, we’re already showing that we went to work in the offseason and we’re gonna continue to do that.”
With such a surge of momentum to start the season – fresh off an unexpected, sensational run to the Championship 4 last year – NASCAR.com asked Chastain what Trackhouse’s potential ceiling could be.
He took a second to think about it, then offered a wry smile before issuing quite the prognosticating mic drop.
“You’ll watch it when we do it.”