Ross Chastain’s victory in last weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series finale came in the most Ross Chastain of ways – bucking convention, adding a dash of aggressive driving and achieving the unprecedented. In some ways, his Phoenix Raceway flourish stands as a significant footnote to Ryan Blaney’s first championship triumph. Still, the performance is a potential turning point in Trackhouse Racing’s growth.
The Cup Series team and burgeoning entertainment start-up founded by Justin Marks first set foot on the track in 2021 as a single-car outfit with Daniel Suárez as its driver, promising big plans and rapid expansion. In Year 3 of operations, Trackhouse kept imagining and mostly fulfilling those plans, continuing its mission as a challenger and widening its reach.
By some measures, 2023 was a step forward with the smashing victory of New Zealand import Shane van Gisbergen in the Chicago Street Race debut for Trackhouse’s Project 91 initiative, the signing of highly rated prospect Zane Smith from the Truck Series ranks, and the equaling of the organization’s three wins from last year. In other measures, the team regressed – Chastain was ousted in the Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 12 after making the Championship 4 a year ago, and Suárez missed the postseason grid altogether.
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If there was frustration along the way, some of the hurt melted off with Chastain’s precedent-breaking Phoenix finish – marking the first time in 10 editions of the elimination-style playoff format that the eventual champ was not the race winner. Chastain also balked at the prevailing thought of deferential treatment for the four title contenders, racing Blaney especially tough down the stretch.
But Chastain also lauded what Sunday’s victory could do as a “ripple effect” for the team’s esprit de corps as it prepares for Year 4.
“We sustained that level of competition,” said Chastain, who also guided his No. 1 Chevrolet to victory at Nashville Superspeedway in June. “We’ve had our fair share of eighth-place days, 18th-place days, sometimes 22nd-place days, straight up. Yeah, it’s just a continuation, and we’re staying here. We’re not going away. Like, we’re disruptive on track usually by my driving, but it goes with the disruptiveness of Justin and (co-owner) Pitbull and our leadership team doing things different, having a real presence in Nashville, keeping a presence there on Broadway for something outside of Charlotte and Concord and the Lake Norman area. Our shop’s in Concord and all of our employees are there except for Justin and the brain trust of the marketing side.
“Yeah, I just love that we’re staying here and we’re continuing to be fast. Our processes are working. We trust ’em and we continue to see it through.”
Trackhouse will continue as a two-car Cup Series effort with Chastain and Suárez, but with its tentacles sunk into a pair of additional drivers it signed in September. Van Gisbergen, 34, will compete in a curated 2024 schedule that spans all three NASCAR national series. The 24-year-old Smith will move to a full-time Cup Series ride next year through an alliance with Spire Motorsports before a transition to what’s intended to be a three-car Trackhouse attack in 2025.
Those splashy moves for the future diverted some of the attention from a slight downturn in performance for Trackhouse’s established pair. Chastain ended up ninth in the final Cup Series standings after running second a season ago, and Suárez dropped from 10th to 19th, year over year. Both drivers also slipped in other statistical categories, notably in top fives, top 10s, average finish and laps led.
Marks said he still counted the 2023 campaign as a success, but suggested that other teams had made competitive gains in the second year of the Next Gen stock car.
“I’m every bit as proud of this season as last season,” Marks said at Phoenix. “The series has gotten tougher. These teams are bigger than us, have a lot of resources to figure out these cars. Now everybody understands the cars more and more, and what it takes to make them go fast, the drivers understand how to drive them. The level of competition has gotten much more difficult this year. Look, I mean, we won two races. Three in the organization. I think it’s a wonderful success. I think the playoffs are just very, very difficult. One race can make a difference.”
Any offseason momentum created by Chastain’s victory would be welcome to the No. 99 Chevy team and Suárez, who summed up his 2023 campaign on the eve of last Sunday’s finale with an eye toward improvement next year. Suárez broke through for his first Cup Series win a year and a half ago at Sonoma Raceway, but had fewer contending moments this season. His six DNFs also matched a career-high set in his rookie season (2017).
“We want to be a championship-contender kind of team. We have more to do,” Suárez said. “We can win a race once in a while the way we’re operating, but that’s not my goal. I don’t work my butt off to win a race once in a while. I want to win a bunch of races and contend for a championship, so we have work to do, and this is not a secret. We know that. We have to get to work.”
When Trackhouse signed Smith, Marks said that the organization was positioned for growth, but cautioned that “expansion is not something to be taken lightly.” Suárez echoed that sentiment in his Saturday remarks, adding that he planned to curtail his offseason vacation time to bear down for 2024.
“Honestly, I even ask those questions as well to many people inside the team. It’s great that Trackhouse is growing. I love that, you know. I want Trackhouse to be a powerhouse,” Suárez said. “With that being said, right now the 99 team requires some attention, and we have to work on that. We have to clean up some things and be better. Obviously, there is a lot of other things going on within Trackhouse — Project 91, the third-car alliance and things of that nature. But I think that the team is capable of doing everything at the same time, we have to be smart and real about it, too. We can’t be in the position where we’re just hoping things to get better, because hope will only get us so far. So we have to get to work and be real about the issues that we have.”
Marks addressed those concerns after Chastain’s season-capping win, saying that the success of both drivers – collectively, individually – was shared through the organization.
“They struggled a little bit this year,” Marks said. “They’ve been fast at times, and they’ve had some really, really great races. We owe it to Daniel and to the organization this winter to take a real hard look at that 99 program and make sure we are surrounding him in 2024 with all the tools and things that he needs to be successful. I mean, I think in any multi-car organization, there’s one or two that are behind the others for several different reasons, whether it’s data or information or process or culture, whatever.
“We just have to take a hard look at that and make sure that we re-rack the deck in 2024 with a tremendous opportunity for him to go out and be successful because we’ve got the people and partners and tools to have both these cars in the playoffs and fighting in every round. Like I said, we owe it to him. He’s a tremendous human being. He’s a tremendously talented race car driver who wants it as much as anybody else out here. We’re going to try to make sure the next season replicates 2022.”