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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

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.