MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Three races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, Ross Chastain sits atop the points standings for the first time in his career.
And yet the second-year Trackhouse Racing driver continues to battle his own confidence levels, just months after reaching the Championship 4 and finishing runner-up in a breakthrough season for the fledging program.
Don’t be too confused: Chastain has no doubt about the capabilities of his equipment. He’s already netted three stage victories — one in the Daytona 500 ahead of a stage sweep at Auto Club Speedway — in addition to 12 stage points at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week ago.
But that hasn’t diminished the self-doubt that crept into Chastain’s mind ahead of the 2023 campaign.
“I know it sounds weird when I say it out loud, but I have less confidence because I know what we’re capable of,” Chastain told NASCAR.com Tuesday at Martinsville Speedway. “And sustaining this level of competitiveness at this level of the sport is so challenging. We race in circles on the weekends and this sport is a huge circle. Teams go up and down. Drivers’ stock goes up and down. So trying to keep ourselves elevated here is going to be tough.”
The introspective questions aren’t exactly fresh for the eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Alva, Florida. Chastain first mentioned those thoughts a month ago during Daytona 500 Media Day.
“Look, last year was the arrival of Trackhouse and Daniel and myself,” Chastain said on Feb. 15. “I had a new car and a new team to lean on for kind of the unknown and be confident in the unknown that we would come out strong, but we didn’t know. I honestly feel less confident sitting here today than I did one year ago. And I know it might sound odd. It’s something I’ve been working through with my coaches, but I feel like there’s more things I need to do to be better to sustain what we arrived last year and did. …
“The lack of confidence is that I might not be good enough, that I might not be able to execute when it comes time. So continuing to be the best race car driver I can be is where I work to build that confidence back up. It’s not really a numerical value of race finished or anything. It’s just, can I execute when it matters?”
The results have yet to be seen as Chastain’s tenure at Trackhouse is still fairly new — and so is the team’s tenure in NASCAR after a 2021 debut. But the early sample size is encouraging, particularly in Chastain’s case.
A bit of self-auditing may be healthy for the 30-year-old, though. Chastain nabbed two victories last season — the first wins of his career — and advanced to the championship round of the playoffs, but his most recent trip to Victory Lane was April 24, 2022, at Talladega Superspeedway, nearly a year ago. And to propel into the Championship 4, he needed to complete the most desperate move a 10th-place driver has ever pulled at Martinsville Speedway in the Round of 8 finale, grabbing five positions in the final two corners to barely advance.
To Chastain’s point, numbers aren’t the end-all goal, particularly in a sport where there are at least 35 losers to every race winner each week. But he knows now what he and his team were capable of in 2022. Entering Phoenix Raceway as the points leader on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), it’s now a matter of remaining at the top of the cycle.
“I don’t have great words for it, but simply put, I feel like that I have to work harder now than I ever have,” said Chastain, standing next to the Turn 3 SAFER barrier he helped remove from Martinsville on Tuesday. “And I have to drive the car in a more precise way and be better. And I’ve worked my whole life to be as good as I am right now, and trying to find that next unknown piece of how to drive the car a little bit better, how to handle a loose car or a tight car and how to just perform in those key moments in Cup racing.
“It’s 400 miles, 500 miles. And there are key moments in these races that define your race and can ultimately define your season. I mean, this piece of wall — right there to right there — lasted five seconds. Defined our year — and you can’t do that anymore.”
The next three weeks seem to provide more opportunities for Chastain to get back to Victory Lane with races at Phoenix, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Circuit of The Americas. In the five combined races at those tracks last season, Chastain’s average finish is 2.0 — a COTA win for his first triumph, runner-ups in the spring Phoenix race and both Atlanta events and a third-place finish in the season finale.
The goal? Don’t lose any momentum.
“Keep firing like we are, man,” Chastain said. “We’re just bringing hot rods to the race track. Fast cars, [they] handle good. Go over the bumps good. Pit crew’s good, mechanics. There’s not weird things happening. We’re just going and executing and we keep putting ourselves in the top 10 and top five. We’re gonna continue to reap the rewards from it. So we’re not going to win every race, be awful greedy of us, but we are gonna try to.”
Chastain will also try to silence his biggest critic — his mind.
“Nobody’s is a harder critic on me than me,” he said, “so I just push myself. Sometimes I’ve told a little too much but look man, I just want to outwork them on Sunday.”