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How Ross Chastain stopped doubting himself and embraced Cup racing

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Around this time last year, JD Motorsports owner Johnny Davis approached Xfinity driver Ross Chastain with a proposition to compete in his first Cup race.

Chastain did everything but jump at the chance.

Davis and two team executives for JD Motorsports told Chastain that they needed him to run the June race at Dover International Speedway for “a lot of different reasons that I really didn’t grasp at the time,” Chastain said.

Davis and his team had secured enough sponsorship money through Chastain’s connections in the watermelon industry and the Delaware Office of Highway Safety for the weekend to make it possible.

“The budget was big enough that we needed to share it and give Ross the opportunity to drive a Cup car,” Davis told NBC Sports. “When you run those races in conjunction, it just makes you a better driver each and every day you make more laps.”

Chastain, who was competing in his third full-time season in the Xfinity Series for Davis, was taken aback.

“I’m not ready,” Chastain told Davis.

Even with 83 Xfinity starts and 50 Truck Series starts prior to the Dover race weekend in June, Chastain “just didn’t think as a driver I would do a very good job in it.”

But Davis believed the Florida native “was ready” for the move.

“He needed to take that plunge and go on and do it,'” Davis says. “He’s a good kid. Some of these kids come in with a little bit of money, they drive over their head trying to prove how great they are and they crash stuff and they’re gone in a year or two. Ross don’t do that.”

Davis didn’t back down after his driver’s initial rejection. He called Chastain the next morning.

“Hey, I’m not letting this go,” Chastain recalls Davis saying. “We need you to wrap your head around this. This is what we need to do and this will help all of us.”

Finally, Chastain bought in. He was soon singing a different tune.

SNOWBALLING

Ross Chastain drives the No. 15 Chevrolet in the March Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The Monday before the 2017 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Chastain was excited.

For the last third of the season, Chastain had stuck around on Sundays for the Cup races, to watch and observe the series behind the scenes before flying home with Premium. That came after a surprising 20th-place finish at Dover in June and a 38th-place finish there in October.

Now he was locked in to drive in his third race for Premium.

“I was here at the (Premium) shop and then come Wednesday it fell through,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That was kind of tough. Not knowing when I would get another shot in it. …. Then I go through the whole offseason focusing on Xfinity. That was really all I knew I had.”

Fate might have smiled on Chastain that weekend. He overcame flu-like symptoms the day of the Xfinity race to finish 17th.

“Saturday night, it was rough,” Chastain says. “I didn’t sleep at all and woke up Sunday morning even worse. Probably could have made it Sunday, but probably a good thing I didn’t have to find out.”

Like most other drivers, Chastain had to wait until February for his next shot in a Cup car. But it wouldn’t be in the Daytona 500.

With Premium Motorsports wrapped up in Danica Patrick’s final Cup start, Chastain didn’t get a chance to talk to team owner Jay Robinson until the day after the 500, two days after he finished ninth in the Xfinity race. They soon agreed to partner again.

“He did caution me not to think it was all year,” Chastain says, later adding “It’s just snowballed in a good way.”

DOING A LOT WITH LITTLE

Ross Chastain drives JD Motorsports’ No. 4 Chevrolet at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Things have slowed down for Chastain behind the wheel, at least on Saturdays.

Chastain is five races into his current stent driving the No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium.

And those five races have had an impact on how the 25-year-old driver handles his No. 4 Chevrolet at JD Motorsports.

Through five Xfinity races this season, Chastain hasn’t finished worse than 19th. At this point last year, he had never finished better than 16th.

“When it’s all happening, I don’t feel like I’m going 180 mph, I feel like I’m going 140 or a little bit slower,” Chastain says. “It just makes it to where I can be a little more in control and feel the car a little bit better. It all sounds a little silly when you haven’t done it, I’m sure. When you’re out there, it kind of slows it down for you. Then you can just get more out of the car.”

He got a lot out of it two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway when he finished 10th. His ninth career Xfinity top 10 and fifth at a non-restrictor plate track came after some late-race drama on pit road. With Chastain running near the front, Davis decided to buy their last set of tires.

“So they got them back and got the lug nuts glued up, but they need time to dry,” Chastain says. “When they went to put the right front wheel on, all the lug nuts fell off, cause the glue wasn’t dry.”

Chastain lost spots during the green-flag stop.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault, we were running good enough,” Chastain says. “Johnny made the decision to go buy the last set of tires. It’s comical, but it’s true.”

Chastain is in a unique situation with his double-duty weekends. On Saturdays, he competes for a four-car team that has to budget for tires and buys all of its equipment “new to us” — AKA: used — but is capable of running in the top 10.

Chastain’s Cup duties take him to a two-car team that has one top-10 finish in 177 starts since 2014.

But Chastain is benefiting from resources he’s never had in his career.

“Cup cars have data, so I can compare it when I have a teammate,” Chastain says. “It’s been great to see the different throttle traces, brake traces and pressures we need to do.”

Chastain says Premium, which includes crew chiefs Todd Parrott and Pat Tryson, is the most “sophisticated” team he’s been with when it comes to putting a car together.

But “it’s simpler here than I think it would be at a quote, unquote ‘big team’ where I’ve never worked with an engineer, ever.”

Through five Cup races, Chastain’s best result is 27th at Phoenix.

He capped off the first stretch of the season by finishing 29th at Martinsville Speedway and making at least one spotter angry.

“We’re beating a handful of cars” Chastain says. “That’s promising I think.”

PRESSING FORWARD

Chastain’s impressive finish in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway left him at 13th in the point standings entering the two-week break.

It’s his best position in the standings at this point in the season since he was 12th his rookie season in 2015.

“We were trying really hard for 12th,” Chastain says.

Twelve drivers will make the playoffs, something Chastain has yet to accomplish.

In the days that followed the California race, the No. 4 team had a competition meeting.

As they discussed all the work ahead of them, mechanic Rick Johnson spoke up.

“I don’t care how much I have to work,” Chastain recalls Johnson saying. “I don’t care what parts and pieces we have, if we can’t buy another car that we think is better, if we’ve got to run the same stuff we have been in a couple of races, I don’t care, I want to make the playoffs. That is all I care about.”

Chastain says Johnson’s declaration “lit a fire under us.”

“Quit worrying about all the little stuff and let’s just go make it happen.”

Chastain knows a top-10 finish won’t be in the cards for his team every week. It will take a lot of 15th-place finishes where the team placed 18th or 19th in the past.

Chastain works hard on “trying not to be the weak link” no matter what team he’s on, and that comes down to how he manages races.

“I don’t believe that anybody can drive the fastest race car and win,” Chastain says. “I think you have to be a good driver at this level. A lot of guys say, ‘Oh no, you can put anybody in Kyle Busch‘s car and win.’ That’s not the case. I’m sorry, you have to be 100 percent all the time, every lap and be able to manage the weekend.”

While he still has a lot wrap his head around on the Cup side, Chastain believes he’s the only driver who could have produced a 10th-place finish in the No. 4 in California.

“Running the Cup car helped, it just made it to where I wasn’t the weak link, where I could get all the car had,” Chastain says. “That is one thing I do believe is that, I might not be the best race car driver, but there is not anybody that can get in that 4 car and do a better job than I do. I will stand by that. The 15 car is not exactly the same case right now. I still have a long way to go in that thing. I’m sure there’s guys that could get in there and do a better job. That’s part of learning and that was the case with the 4 car at the beginning.”

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Stewart-Haas Racing to make 1,000th Cup start in Texas race

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Stewart-Haas Racing continues to hit historic milestones in its 10th season of Cup competition.

Through just six races it boasts four wins with two of its drivers, including three consecutive for Kevin Harvick (a first in his career).

At Phoenix, the team put all four of its cars in the top 10 for the first time since becoming a four-car operation in 2014.

Entering this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, SHR has four wins, six top-five finishes and 11 top 10s.

When the engines are fired on the Fords of Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, they will give SHR 1,000 Cup starts. That number does not include the 284 starts from 2002-08 when the team was known as Haas-CNC.

“That makes me feel really, really old,” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said in a press release. “Seriously, a thousand starts is a sign of longevity and that’s an accomplishment. It helps in keeping good people and recruiting good people.”

After Tony Stewart became co-owner of the team founded by Gene Haas, the first start for SHR was the 2009 Daytona 500.

Stewart and Ryan Newman rolled off the grid for the team. Stewart started fifth and finished eighth, while Newman started and finished 36th.

Stewart earned the first of the team’s 43 wins that June at Pocono Raceway. Bowyer claimed the most recent win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. It was Bowyer’s first win in 190 starts and his first with SHR after joining the team in 2017.

“Make no mistake, all four Stewart-Haas cars have been good all year-long,” Bowyer said in a press release. “Kevin led that charge when he won three races in a row, but we’ve been ‘Steady Eddie’ with our 14 car and the things that I’ve always been accustomed to. Consistency and things like that I’m starting to see, knowing our strengths, knowing our weaknesses from last year, focusing on those weaknesses and then, all of a sudden, it starts to click in and putting things together, and you have those conversations. You feel confidence.”

Since 2009, SHR has also fielded cars for Danica Patrick, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon and Max Papis.

In 996 starts, SHR has 199 top fives, 378 top 10s, 35 poles and two championships in 2011 (Stewart) and 2014 (Harvick).

SHR has won on every active Cup track except for Kentucky Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

Most starts among active Cup wins

Hendrick Motorsports – 3,867

Roush Fenway Racing – 3,533

Richard Childress Racing – 2,857

Joe Gibbs Racing – 2,188

Team Penske – 1,957

Wood Brothers Racing – 1,516

Chip Ganassi Racing – 1,075 (does not include the five years and 367 starts when the team was known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing)

Stewart-Haas Racing – 996

 

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Kurt Busch’s No. 41 becomes first car revealed for this year’s throwback race at Darlington Raceway

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If Kurt Busch’s car in this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback race at Darlington Raceway looks familiar, there’s a good reason for it.

Busch will drive a car with a paint scheme similar to the car he drove at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

And what a race that was. Busch’s No. 97 Rubbermaid-sponsored red and gray Ford had a last-lap fender-banging battle with Ricky Craven’s No. 32 Cal Wells Racing Pontiac, which ended up 0.002 seconds ahead of Busch for the win.

Ironically, tomorrow, March 16, marks the 15th anniversary of what at the time was the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Busch’s Darlington black, red and gray throwback scheme – the first of all teams to be revealed for this year’s race – on his No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Fusion, was first unveiled by NASCAR.com.

Busch has never won at Darlington. His 2003 runner-up finish has been his highest finish, though he’s also finished third in 2010 and in last year’s race.

This will be the fourth consecutive year for Darlington’s popular throwback weekend. This year’s theme is “seven decades of NASCAR” across the entire weekend from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2.

Stewart-Haas Racing has won the best throwback paint scheme the last two years (in voting at NASCAR.com), last year with Danica Patrick’s No. 10 car (a blue-and-white look that honored NASCAR Hall of Famer Robert Yates), and Tony Stewart’s car for his final race at Darlington in 2016 that honored Bobby Allison.

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Ryan: Squelching social media isn’t solution for improving inspection

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The content was so compelling, the engagement was so widespread, and the stakes were so high.

There was so much resonance rumbling through the myriad feeds of NASCAR Twitter, it had to get someone’s attention.

And it did.

Of course we’re talking about NASCAR being named a finalist for best use of Twitter (the #NASCARPlayoffs hashtag) in the Cynopsis Sports Media Awards.

Wait, did something else happen last week in the realm of NASCAR social media?

Oh, right.

At the same time the hottest driver in NASCAR was fingering social media as the source of his penalty after winning at Las Vegas and subtly upbraiding NASCAR executives for whiling away too many hours on Twitter, other NASCAR staffers were cheerily hailing the sanctioning body’s appearance five times on the Cynopsis list.

Besides the Twitter accolade, NASCAR Digital Media also picked up a nomination for best podcast series (The Glass Case of Emotion, co-hosted by Ryan Blaney), and even Harvick was represented in best radio program (for his Happy Hours show on SiriusXM with Matt Yocum, which is up against heavyweights Dan Patrick, Jim Rome and Dan Le Batard).

The point of this is to note that while Harvick’s points about the impact of social media on NASCAR officiating are fair (particularly as it relates to high-ranking decision-makers who spend chunks of their days interacting with fans), there also is no putting the genie back in the bottle and pretending that Twitter and its pervasive tentacles can simply be ignored.

NASCAR is craving that input. Many of its strategies for future audience growth and retention are predicated on leveraging social media to the hilt. Its Fan and Media Engagement Center in Uptown Charlotte is monitoring what fans are saying on the Internet in real time with an Oceanic breadth and precision.

The Reddit detectives are here to stay, and God love them, because it actually is good to have that level of interest from a sophisticated segment of the fan base. NASCAR actively is promoting its STEM initiatives in attracting younger fans; what better example of how engineering principles are being applied in the viewing experience.

No, the answer to how NASCAR can improve its officiating won’t be found in constraining social media, whose rise can’t be untethered from the technology that also made Harvick’s Las Vegas penalties possible. In the era of high-definition TV and digital images transmitted instantaneously, rival teams and NASCAR were seeing potentially incriminating evidence of the No. 4 Ford ahead of anyone on Twitter.

In the 21st century digital age, the best solution is to stop evaluating and announcing postrace infractions on a late 20th-century timetable. NASCAR needs to find a way to do postrace inspection expeditiously and exclusively at the track.

Harvick alluded to this in praising Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip, who said in a SiriusXM interview last week that postrace inspections at the R&D Center (which opened in 2003) should be informational only. During a January appearance on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Harvick suggested a similar approach with the advent of the Optical Scanning Station, which he hoped would transform postrace inspection. “You’ll see cars taken back (to the R&D Center) not really to be relevant of whether you won or lost or are getting a fine, but if something’s happening and moving and to say, ‘This can’t happen,’” Harvick said.

After Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory last year was tainted by a Wednesday penalty, there seemed serious momentum for limiting the shelf life of a Cup penalty to Sunday night. Somehow, that got sidetracked before the 2018 season, leaving NASCAR vulnerable to the negative optics of last week’s controversy. It’s never good when the main storyline four days after the race is whether a winner was legal.

The best option is simple: NASCAR needs to get out of the business of R&D Center teardowns two to three days after a race. Not because of social media but because it’s inevitable that teams always will be ahead of NASCAR inspectors and increase the odds that a midweek teardown will uncover something pushing the boundaries, as Jeff Burton explained on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast last fall.

“They have to get to a place to where you roll through tech postrace (at the track), you’re good,” Burton said. “You can’t not have postrace (inspection), but some of it, they’re just going to have to give up on.”

That isn’t as large of a concession as it might seem. Surely, if there’s an instance during a race in which a winner appears to be benefiting from a questionable part, it can be given closer scrutiny afterward.

Social media is hard-wired into NASCAR’s existence and can’t be eradicated. It’s best to figure out how to incorporate it (with efficiency) instead of excluding it from inspection.


Asked why his team wouldn’t appeal Harvick’s penalty, Tony Stewart answered with a question. “How many appeals have you seen overturned?”

Maybe more than “Smoke” thinks.

According to NASCAR research from the past 20 seasons (when appeals records have been kept consistently), there have been 202 appeals heard. Including both levels of appeals (which initially are heard by a three-person panel and then can be sent to the Final Appeals Officer), 67 percent have been upheld. There were 33 percent that have been adjusted, including 49 that were reduced and 14 were overturned completely (7 percent of the full total).

The most recent appeal “win” involved a shock infraction against a K&N team at Phoenix International Raceway in November 2015 that resulted in the elimination of a six-month probation.

So maybe the odds weren’t stacked against Stewart’s team as much as it seemed – though NASCAR also has rewritten its rulebook in recent years for clarity that enhances the chances of penalties being upheld. It also looks at issuing penalties the same way federal prosecutors do – they won’t bring a case unless they believe they have ironclad evidence to win at trial.


Danica Patrick’s name hardly has been mentioned, but it’s easy to spot the subtext of the best start in Stewart-Haas Racing history: Patrick’s departure after five seasons is being viewed as a positive by the team.

Harvick intimated as much during a postrace interview Sunday (video above) with NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast (“It’s elevated the 10 car (Patrick’s former ride) to make it relevant in our organization; it was irrelevant for several years because it didn’t perform”), and he already took a subtle dig at Daytona International Speedway last month about the productivity of Patrick’s feedback (“You have to have the input to help build your team going forward, so some of those things fall short possibly from maybe not getting the input that the team needed to push the cars in a good direction.”).

Stewart, who also hasn’t been shy about pointing a finger partly at Patrick for the struggles of her team (noting its personnel was overhauled at her behest), said Sunday that “it just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of.  It just seems like this group of these guys really work well together.”

The implication is clear: Patrick was the weak link replaced by Aric Almirola.

What impact might it have on Patrick’s brand or legacy in NASCAR?

Probably very little, as she wraps up her racing career with the Indianapolis 500 and focuses her attention on clothing lines, fitness books and cooking show concepts. But if SHR continues to excel, it will undoubtedly be hailed as validation by her detractors in NASCAR.


After his third consecutive victory, Harvick joked that Gil Martin, his crew chief from 2009-2012 at Richard Childress Racing, intentionally tried to fire him up to produce better results.

Sunday’s gleeful celebration showed why it often works for a driver who admittedly thrives on controversy and stirring up trouble. So why not make Harvick angry all the time?

Because it doesn’t always work.

For every instance in which he has delivered a playoff moment after getting ticked off (e.g., Dover 2015 when he remained upset with Jimmie Johnson for a collision in the playoff opener), there have been others in which he has come up short (e.g., Dover 2010 when he finished 15th after a garage confrontation a day earlier with Denny Hamlin, who had questioned the legality of RCR’s cars).

Any rival knows there is nothing to be gained with “Happy” by poking the bear, but the anger doesn’t automatically translate into transcendent performances. With a fast car and a foul attitude, there is no one better, but the former also can matter as much as the latter.


Harvick will stay squarely in the spotlight even before the garage in Fontana, California, opens this weekend. The Bakersfield native will be racing Thursday night just a few hours up the road at his hometown track of Kern County Raceway in a K&N race (that will be broadcast at 11 p.m. ET March 20 on NBCSN).

The 2014 series champion spoke eloquently about why the grassroots outreach was important and how it had gone missing in recent years.

Here’s a good example of what he meant: Before NASCAR’s 1997 inaugural race at Fontana, there was anticipation that short tracks such as nearby Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino would benefit from Southern California’s first Cup race in nine years. During Riverside International Raceway’s heyday, stars such as Bill Elliott often would show up to run a Late Model at Orange Show the night before the main event

But when the Cup Series returned, the stars didn’t come to the short tracks. If Harvick, who singled out Elliott’s son, Chase, as a prime candidate for following his footsteps, can start a trend at Kern County, it’ll be a good one.


If winning felt like a playoff moment for Harvick, finishing second might have felt the same way for Kyle Busch – but not for the right reasons.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver now has finished second in three of the past five Cup races dating to last season’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just as when he lost the 2017 title to Martin Truex Jr., Busch’s No. 18 Toyota seemed faster than Harvick’s Sunday (leading a race-high 128 laps).

At Miami, it was an inopportune caution flag that wrecked Busch’s chances to beat Truex. It was strategy again Sunday, but this time it was more self-inflicted (as noted by Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Monday’s NASCAR America) with a curious decision to wait on pitting under green and then a botched stop.

“Had a couple guys pit a little bit before us,” Busch said. “I don’t think that hurt us too bad, but the jack dropping certainly did. We lost the race on pit road today. There’s been races where I’ve won it on pit road, too. We’ll just have to go into next week and see what we can do there. “

Crew chief Adam Stevens prepares championship-caliber cars, and Busch brings all-world talent. But the persistent struggle at closing out wins (evidenced by how long it took for a breakthrough to happen last season) has to be eating at the team at some level.

Stewart-Haas Racing puts together best race yet (video)

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It’s a good time to be Stewart-Haas Racing.

In the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary, the team enjoyed its best Cup race yet as a four-car operation Sunday at ISM Raceway.

While Kevin Harvick grabbed a third consecutive Cup win for the first time, SHR put all four of its cars in the top 10 for the first time ever.

Clint Bowyer finished sixth, Aric Almirola finished seventh and Kurt Busch, who won Stage 2, placed 10th.

Busch has two top 10s through four races. Bowyer has two top 10s and one top five. Almirola has two top 10s. He was a half a lap away from winning the Daytona 500 until he was wrecked on the backstretch.

The team has four races with its new driver lineup after Danica Patrick departed at the end of last season. It’s also in its second season of working with Ford.

Team co-owner Tony Stewart took note of the team’s improvement at Atlanta, a race he watched from home due to the threat of rain.

“I took a picture of the screen when we had all four cars in the top seven,” Stewart said. “I took a screen shot of it as a fan. Just kept looking at it, going, ‘This is really cool.'”

Is this the strongest his team has ever been?

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Stewart said. “It just shows the strength of having four really good teammates that are giving four valid sets of information that they can all feed off of and work off of.  It just seems like this group of these guys really work well together.

“I think a lot of it, too, is having that little extra time like we mentioned last week, for these guys to be able to massage everything, take everything we had and make it better. It’s nice to look on the board and see all four cars in the top 10. That’s a proud moment.”

Harvick, who earned his 17th win with SHR, received a positive text message from Almirola Saturday night predicting a top-10 run for his No. 10 Ford.

“Dude, you’ve got a top-five car,” Harvick responded.  “You need to go out and run in the top five.”

Almirola’s result is his best in 15 starts at ISM Raceway.

“That’s really the most important thing because that progression as a race team, when everybody ups the ante on the car, you learn something from each car and each person,” Harvick said. “The confidence in the company goes up. The evolution of things starts to happen more rapidly. Now that the 10 car is in that evolution, it is good for our company.”

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