Through 14 races, Ross Chastain sits atop the NASCAR Cup Series points standings.
It’s a spot he’s still not particularly used to being in, though perhaps he should be by now. Including penalties dished to other teams along the way, the driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet has ranked first or second in points since the second race of the season in Fontana, California.
“It’s big,” Chastain told NASCAR.com Friday via teleconference. “It’s almost indescribable for me just to be running well enough in the Cup Series to be in contention for getting the most points. I mean, there’s no way around it, right? There’s nothing other than acquiring points that gets you to where we’re at. So, to this date, we’ve got more than anybody else.
“No matter how all this goes, like these moments, I will remember forever. And that kind of sounds silly to say that out loud when we have, like you said, bigger aspirations. But still, the small victories along the way are not unnoticed by us.”
This weekend, Chastain returns to World Wide Technology Raceway, where on-track disagreements with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott took center stage a year ago. In his own words, there was a lot of “content” that came from that day that lingered throughout the rest of 2022 and into the 2023 season.
“When I watch it, it is … it’s hard to watch,” Chastain said. “But I remember what was going through my mind in those moments, and it wasn’t just that day. It was a build-up to that, and I made a decision to move Denny and hit him too hard and wrecked him. Never wanted to do that.”
Intent aside, what resulted was a rivalry between Chastain and Hamlin that carried into the March 12 race at Phoenix Raceway this year, leading Hamlin to intentionally wall Chastain and incur a $50,000 fine and 25-point penalty. Oh, and the contact with Elliott at Gateway in 2022? For that, Chastain was a bit less remorseful, chalking it up as a product of close-quarters action.
“The three-wide in the race, all that, it’s just racing,” Chastain said. “But I’m really glad going into the race this year that, funny enough, the two guys that kind of tag-teamed me last year, one of them’s not even gonna be there. And they’re so focused with themselves, they’re just probably eating watermelon today and not even worried about me.”
A competitor in the Championship 4 one season ago, Chastain has found plenty of success at NASCAR’s top echelon since joining Trackhouse Racing, including his first two victories in the Cup Series. But the most recent of those came at Talladega Superspeedway in April – of 2022. Next week’s race at Sonoma Raceway marks one year since Trackhouse went to Victory Lane at all, that week courtesy of Daniel Suárez’s breakthrough triumph.
Goose eggs in 2023 be damned, there is a high level of belief Trackhouse is ready to snap back to Victory Lane in an instant.
“We feel strong. We know we’re strong,” Chastain said. “We’ve both had opportunities to win this year. Hasn’t worked out. But we just keep going to the race track and driving some of the fastest rocket ships in the Cup Series. And as long as we keep preparing to win, and our team keeps preparing and building cars that can win, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
“(Cup Series racing) is really tough. And there’s things that I have learned this year that I wish I knew at the beginning of the year. But you know, getting caught up in the anniversaries of things, I’m not a big birthday celebration guy for myself. I’ll go to someone else’s party, but I don’t really care to have one for me. And same goes with wins. I’m not sad, and I didn’t celebrate a year after the COTA win, for example. It’s just we go, we move on, and we remember the good times, but we don’t dwell on the bad ones.”
Thanks to their explosive 2022 campaign, it’s sometimes easy to forget this is just Trackhouse Racing’s third season in NASCAR. In many ways, it’s actually still its sophomore year. Trackhouse’s 2021 debut with Suárez and crew chief Travis Mack on the No. 99 team stemmed from a building on the campus of Richard Childress Racing, utilizing older RCR chassis while racing the Gen 6 Cup car.
Then came last year, which saw Trackhouse take over the building and operations that formerly belonged to Chip Ganassi Racing, where Chastain drove the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2021. Chastain’s commute never changed. It did for the No. 99 team.
“Nothing changed other than the name on the front of the building and the upper management of my bosses in the shop from my crew chief to shop managers and car chief; like we kept a lot of that the same,” Chastain said. “So as Daniel came in and Travis and they assembled that 99 group, that was a totally new group to our shop. They had to change where they were going to work from 2021 to ’22. But we didn’t. So I’d say they had more learning to do to get up to speed with how the shop operated.”
Coupled with the addition of the Next Gen vehicle that debuted in 2022, there was plenty of change afoot. A year and a half later, Chastain and Suárez continue to evolve as teammates — a tenacious pair of drivers; hungry, passionate and fast, which can (and has) lead to disagreements.
“I take definitely a less vocal role compared to Daniel,” Chastain said. “He definitely is more vocal about a lot of things. And sometimes I’m like it, ‘Yes, yes. What he’s saying! Yes, that. I agree.’ He’s just a lot more vocal about it.
“We’re professionals. So as we race, and we race really competitive cars, there’s bound to be human nature, to be incidents — and there have been — and we’re professionals, though. We move on and handle our business at the shop. We really couldn’t come from further upbringings as far as NASCAR teammates are concerned. I don’t think anybody has two drivers that came up (this) differently. But then again, we’re more alike than either one of us will probably ever admit. But when it comes to interacting with the team and stuff, we go about stuff professionally and different in a lot of ways.”
Each suffered issues in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Monday — ironically, both involving the No. 8 of Kyle Busch. Suárez suffered nose damage when Busch spun in front of him, leaving the No. 99 nowhere to go but Busch’s driver-side door. Chastain, on the other hand, suffered his race-altering contact on pit road.
“On pit road, I ran into the 8 and 19 (Martin Truex Jr.),” Chastain said. “We all merged as I was coming out of my box around the 15 car. We were four-wide — really five-wide with the 15 to my left — and bent the right-rear upper control arm. We hit wheel to wheel. The 8 was fine. Like, it’s kind of crazy how just the luck happens. It was a hard hit, though. Like we all hit together — like three cars at once hit and bent the rear toe. So the toe link was fine. But the upper control arm was bent.
“I expected it as soon as I hit it. I could tell the wheel was off a little bit, but it was hard to tell. And it wasn’t something we could fix. We would’ve had to go laps down changing the upper, so we just rode it out.”
There’s been a lot of luck like that lately for the quickly rising organization, and logic says it’ll have to start going the other way at some point. Like Chastain noted, as long as the team keeps bringing “rocket ships” to the track and preparation remains paramount, it’ll all come together in due course.
And it could all come together Sunday at St. Louis.