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Xfinity Spotlight Q&A with Ross Chastain, watermelon farmer turned race car driver

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You may have heard Ross Chastain‘s name a few times last Saturday during Xfinity Series action at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The first was when his No. 4 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports was the second-fastest car in the first round of qualifying. He later started a season-best 11th and finished 31st after an accident.

But you more than likely heard Chastain’s name a few hours later during a nearly 90-minute rain delay. That was when one of the 24-year-old’s fists connected with another person’s face for the first time in his life.

Long story short, run-ins between Chastain and Jeremy Clements on track and in the pits under caution resulted in Clements approaching Chastain from behind and grabbing him by the shoulders.

A surprised Chastain didn’t like the look he saw in Clements’ eyes.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“It was over before I knew it, man,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “It wasn’t even something I decided to do in my mind. This got real bad, real quick. The look in his face. … To see his face like that, he was red. Had the crazy-eye look. Just a bunch of yelling and carrying on. All of a sudden it was done. His crew was rushing me and I was backing up and my crew came running in to save my butt basically.”

The two drivers met in the NASCAR hauler after the race and shook hands. Chastain said they’ll be fine going forward. Though he says “I stand by what I did,” the incident still bothered him four days later.

“I hate it,” Chastain said. “Not how I want to represent everyone around me or myself. The people that sponsor me. I’m a role model for kids. I do a lot with elementary schools. That’s probably what I feel the worst about. People out there seeing it, or reading about it and just getting a glimpse of what they think I’m like and that sticking with them into the future even though that’s not who I am.”

Chastain, a native of Alva, Florida, grew up working on his family’s watermelon farm before his racing career started at 13 driving a FastTruck. After two years in the Camping World Truck Series, including one with Brad Keselowski Racing, Chastain is in his third year of full-time Xfinity competition.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: What was your “Welcome to the Xfinity Series moment”?

Chastain: I hope it was about winning the first race I ever ran in the No. 4 car at Daytona in 2015. We were running (third) when we took the white flag and then we all got together and wound up in the grass. … That was definitely my first one and the one people still bring up. We were in a really good position because it ended up Ryan Reed, he was pushing me when I slid off the track, that was going into Turn 1. He came back around and won the dang thing. We were in the right spot and that’s really hard to do at those speedways, but we would have had a really good shot coming back to the checkered flag.

NBC Sports: You mentioned you went to the July Daytona race growing up. What do you remember about the first race you ever went to?

Chastain: It rained. Pretty much rained every July there in Daytona. We watched Jeff Gordon win a bunch. That was back when DEI was big, and they were winning races. I was a Gordon fan, so obviously I was pulling for the Pepsi car and Jeff. That’s what I looked forward to after we got done with watermelons. It was time to pack up the camper and go to Daytona.

NBC Sports: What’s day-to-day life like on a watermelon farm?

Chastain: It’s hot. We plant in early January, try to get our plants in the ground the first week of January. They’re harvesting now. They started a few weeks ago. This time of year is normally good if you got a good crop. Watermelons are leaving so that means money is coming in, so life’s good. We get paid once a year, so you’ve got to budget everything throughout the rest of the year. It’s good times right now out at the watermelon field. But the end of the summer into whatever winter is down in South Florida, all the money is going out, so you definitely feel the pains of that. We don’t actually live on the farm per se. The farm is about 15 minutes north of the house. But we’re there every day, early in the morning. You just work til dark is when you get off. This time of year is some late days.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup Series Bristol race, what would be your intro song?

Chastain: Oh man, it would have to be the “Watermelon Crawl” (by Tracy Byrd) the first time at least. That goes without saying. That would be the obvious choice right off the bat.

NBC Sports: Do you remember the first time you saw your face or name on merchandise?

Chastain: No, I don’t. I do all my own. I order it. I’ve never had anybody blindly order merchandise for me. I’m part of the artwork process, and unfortunately, the payment process.

NBC Sports: What do you do as part of the art process?

Chastain: You call the shirt company. I’ve got a group out of Kannapolis, North Carolina, that does all mine. It’s Omega Graphics. I just call over there and usually go sit down if I’m going to do something new and sit down with the art team. I start talking, and they start sketching and when I say ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for,’ they ball it up and start again. We do it old school, scratching it out on a piece of paper and then they draw it up on a computer. … Probably the coolest thing we’ve done is a diecast of the No. 4 car, the full watermelon car. That’s the coolest piece of merchandise we’ve done through Lionel. They did 500 of them so that was a big step for me to take that and get those made. Lionel let me do it. They don’t let anybody make diecasts these days. They’re pretty stingy with their production time. It took a little while but we finally got it pulled off.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?

Chastain: Probably getting ready to leave the hotel. When I wake up, I’m ready to be at the track. I just want to be there and be getting ready and going through the car and everything. A lot of race mornings are pretty early because of qualifying being ahead of the race. I get impatient. I’m in a hurry to get to the race track in the mornings, so it’s a quick shower, brush your teeth and let’s go. I don’t like riding with people to the track, because when I’m ready, I’m ready to go. Unfortunately, I’m a lot like my father and grandfather in those aspects that I said I would never be like.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Chastain: I had a ’76 Jeep pickup, three speed with a wood bed on the back. Just at the farm is what I drove around growing up. So that’s pretty much what I learned to drive a stick shift with, other than the tractors, but that’s a totally different mindset for a tractor versus a street vehicle truck.

NBC Sports: You went to college?

Chastain: I did a semester, plus two weeks. Then I got my first full-time ride in the Truck series. I had to put that on hold.

NBC Sports: Where did you go?

Chastain: FGCU down in South Florida. Florida Gulf Coast University.

NBC Sports: You mean Dunk City?

Chastain: Yeah man! That’s it.

NBC Sports: How did you pick that?

Chastain: We lived down there in Fort Meyers. I was able to live at home and go to the university and all that. … I started the fall semester 2011. I can’t claim it because I didn’t finish it. Which is how most NASCAR drivers are. They come in out of high school and they make a big deal about them going to college and racing. If you check back in with them within that year it’s usually the college has stopped, and they’re still racing. But they don’t broadcast that.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Picture Perfect: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race topped only by family photo

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiled when he walked to his Xfinity car for the first practice at 8:30 a.m., when he worked later in the day in the NBCSN booth, when he stood next to wife Amy and daughter Isla before the Xfinity race and when he climbed from his car after winning a stage, leading 96 laps and finishing fourth.

The last time Earnhardt had this much fun in a car?

“When I was racing late models in the ‘90s probably,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “I had a lot of fun in the late ‘90s running the Xfinity Series (but) I didn’t know how good I had it. (In) the Cup garage, it’s so damn cutthroat it’s hard to have fun in there.”

Friday, he oozed energy. Earnhardt spoke as quickly as his Chevrolet ran. He laughed. He bobbed. He raised his hands.

He took it all in just as the fans did at Richmond Raceway. They rejoiced when the No. 88 led. They roared when he was introduced before the race and exclaimed as he stood on pit road after running 250 laps. They followed their pied piper as he walked down pit road to the media center. Halfway there, he diverted his path so he could walk with them, sign autographs and take selfies.

Other than a win – which went to Christopher Bell – the day couldn’t have been much better. Especially since he sought to manage expectations by saying before practice began that he hoped to score a top-10 finish.

“You just can’t assume you can miss eight months, 10 months and come in and win, much less run in the top five,” he said.

As the day progressed, a top-10 finish would be almost a disappointment.

Earnhardt was fast during the day, qualified second and put himself in position for a strong run.

“Right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, ‘Man if I don’t win now I’m going to be disappointed,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I had backed myself into a corner with my expectations getting too high. It’s easy to be disappointed that we didn’t win because we should have, but I didn’t do a good job on that one restart. I just spun my tires.”

Even so, Earnhardt called it a “fun night” and noted the challenges for JR Motorsports to bring a fifth car to the track, especially with three of the organization’s drivers competing in the playoffs: Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Tyler Reddick.

Yet, the car for the boss proved to be the best. Earnhardt even won a stage, which he noted on the radio to his team after it happened.

“I never won a freaking stage before. It’s kind of embarrassing to be honest with you,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “It felt good. I had fun doing it.”

That feeling, though, couldn’t compare to what he felt before the race when he stood with Amy and Isla for pictures in front of his car.

“Being with Isla, that meant a lot to me,” Earnhardt said of his 4-month old daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll think of my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t have experienced any of it. We got to have one race together. Pretty important moment for me.”

But it might not be the last. Earnhardt talked about running another race next year. He might return to Richmond or go to Atlanta.

That’s for another day.

On this day, after he had given his fan base and himself one more memory, there was still something else to do.

“I can’t wait to get back to the (motor home),” he said.

And celebrate his accomplishment with his wife and daughter.

 and on Facebook

Results, point standings after Xfinity playoff opener

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Christopher Bell punched his ticket to the second round of the Xfinity playoffs by winning Friday’s race at Richmond.

It’s Bell’s fifth win of the season.

He beat Ross Chastain, Daniel Hemric, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Tifft.

Earnhardt led a race-high 96 laps and won Stage 2 in his first NASCAR start since last year.

Click here for the results.

Points

With his win, Bell is the only driver who doesn’t have to worry about next weekend’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

He’s the first driver to lock a spot in the second round of the playoffs.

While Bell leads the standings, Hemric is second (-28 points).

The top five is completed by Justin Allgaier (-34), Chastain (-37) and Sadler (-38).

Austin Cindric (-62) and Ryan Reed (-63) are in the 11th and 12th spots.

Click here for the point standings.

Christopher Bell wins Richmond Xfinity race; Dale Jr. places fourth

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Christopher Bell opened the Xfinity Series playoffs with a win in Friday night’s race at Richmond Raceway.

Bell took the lead from Matt Tifft on a restart with 14 laps to go and didn’t look back, as he beat Ross Chastain, Daniel Hemric, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tifft.

The win is the fifth for Bell this year and the first in seven races. He completes a sweep of the season’s races at Richmond. It’s also his first win from the pole.

“It’s not very often that you get to win with a car that’s not a winning car, we’ll take it,” Bell told NBCSN. “Man, I’m just pumped.”

Earnhardt, who made his first NASCAR start since retiring from full-time Cup competition 10 months ago, led a race-high 96 laps and won Stage 2.

“It got my expectations all messed up,” Earnhardt told NBCSN. “I was like, ‘Dang, I got to win now.’ We didn’t have the car at the end. Restarting on the outside is kind of tough. … We’ll try to do another one next year and see where we go.”

Elliott Sadler finished sixth in his last start at his home track.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

MORE: Results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Ross Chastain placed second after having to start from the rear for unapproved adjustments. It was his third and final scheduled start for Chip Ganassi Racing … Ryan Reed placed 10th after also starting from the rear for unapproved adjustments. It’s his first top 10 in six races.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Ty Majeski wrecked with three laps left in Stage 2 following contact with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ryan Reed. It’s the 11th DNF for the No. 60 team this season due to a wreck … Katherine Legge placed 28th after causing two cautions in the final stage … No. 1 seed Justin Allgaier wrecked out from contact with Cole Custer on a restart with 25 laps to go.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT No. 1: “That’s the first stage win of my career.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. after winning Stage 2.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT No. 2: “To be the last time on this track, I don’t have a win, but I have a lot of great memories here.” – Elliott Sadler, who competed in his last race at his home track.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drive for the Cure 200 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval at 3 p.m. ET Sept. 29 on NBCSN.

Daniel Suarez trying to find his place in Silly Season

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RICHMOND, Va. — Daniel Suarez, expected to lose his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, says he has options but isn’t willing to reveal them.

Suarez is looking for a ride because reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are expected to move to the No. 19 team with Furniture Row Racing closing operations after this season.

That leaves Suarez on the outside at JGR.

“I don’t really have anything good to say,” Suarez said after qualifying fifth Friday. “When you don’t have anything good to say, it is better not to say anything.”

Suarez removed a reference Joe Gibbs Racing from his Twitter profile this week. Asked about that Friday, Suarez laughed and said: “I’m a driver. I like my family. I like classic cars. That’s what I put in there.”

As for where he might race next year, Suarez said: “We’re talking to a lot of people. I’m sure good things will come our way.”

Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas said last week at Las Vegas that his team has talked to Suarez’s group about the No. 41 car. Kurt Busch’s contract expires after this season with the team, which creates the opening in the No. 41 car. 

Reports have stated Kurt Busch could be headed to the No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing and replace Jamie McMurray.

Another option for Suarez could be Leavine Family Racing. Kasey Kahne won’t return to the No. 95 after this season and car owner Bob Leavine has expressed an interest in aligning with Toyota.

One place that doesn’t appear to be an option is Roush Fenway Racing, which is expected to announce Saturday that Ryan Newman will join the team to drive the No. 6 car next year. Newman’s departure would create a vacancy with the No. 31 car at Richard Childress Racing after this season.

Suarez was encouraged by his run Friday at Richmond Raceway and optimistic about Saturday night’s Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“Definitely the best car I’ve ever had here at Richmond,” he said. “So hopefully I can take advantage of it (Saturday).”

If he can, he could score his first career Cup victory.

We know we can do it,” Suarez said. “Not making the playoffs wasn’t good for us. We had way, way higher expectations than the job that we have done. We have had a lot of different issues though the year. Sometimes things don’t work out.”