Ross Chastain surprises himself in first Cup start during 800-mile weekend

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Ross Chastain didn’t realize where he finished in his NASCAR Cup debut until about 45 minutes after it was over.

The 24-year-old driver and watermelon farmer was driving a golf cart out of Dover International Speedway when he looked at the frontstretch scoring pylon.

The main portion of the pylon showed the top 15. At the bottom of it, a rotating section showed the rest of the field. Eventually, Chastain’s No. 15 showed up next to the 20th spot.

Chastain was floored.

“Holy cow! Are you kidding me?” Chastain thought. “I was confused after the race.”

For the previous 45 minutes, Chastain thought he finished 22nd in the AAA 400. As the laps wound down, Chastain’s No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports was running on a lap by itself, three laps off the lead.

After the multi-car crash unfolded during the overtime start, Chastain, who had forgotten about the overtime line rule, shut his engine off and began coasting around the 1-mile track.

“My expectations were to finish a single-digit number of laps down to the leader,” Chastain told NBC Sports Monday as he drove back to North Carolina from Delaware. “Nine laps or less was the goal and then anything after that, just see how the race goes and stay out of the way.”

When he coasted across the finish line, his result was the best for Premium Motorsports at a non-restrictor plate track in 128 Cup starts dating back to 2014. Michael Waltrip delivered the team’s first top 10 in this year’s Daytona 500.

“We were just excited to be competitive,” Chastain said. “I told them going in I struggle wrestling a car that’s loose around Dover and that was again the case with all three race cars this weekend. Every time we’d bring a race car up, I had a really hard time making good lap times.”

Chastain, a four-year veteran of the Xfinity Series, pulled off the triple-header of driving in all three national series races at Dover. He drove for three different teams, with himself being the only common factor on each team.

MORE: Ross Chastain: Watermelon farmer turned NASCAR driver

At the end of the weekend, the native of Alfa, Florida, had attempted to complete 800 miles in three days. Before Sunday, he had never ran in a 400-mile event.

“Never ran 400 miles or laps around anywhere in a single thing,” Chastain said. “Did a lot of prep leading up to it with my mom and making sure everything food wise the week leading up I was doing the right stuff. We eat a lot of barbecue, but she does way better than anybody in our family does. I’ve grown to know that I need to do that and I have been doing it a long time since we got into all this racing stuff. But really ramped it up the last couple of weeks and fed my stuff the right stuff basically.”

In Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, he finished 15th, three laps down due to a bad battery.

In Saturday’s Xfinity race, Chastain drove his No. 4 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports to 21st place, two laps down after losing a right-front tire.

In the midst of it all, Chastain had to prepare to drive a Cup car for the first time.

It made for an unusual Saturday for Chastain, who was used to sticking around Dover until Sunday when the Cup race started and then driving home with the race on the radio. When a JD Motorsports sponsor held a party in the track’s campgrounds Saturday night, Chastain abstained from any adult beverages on the eve of the biggest race of his career.

“I guess I was the only sober one there taking care of everybody,” Chastain said.

On the track, Chastain struggled to get used to an adjustable track bar and the car’s drive height.

“The hardest thing about it was the running back and forth with all the practices,” Chastain said. “Being with three different race teams and not working together except for with me, it was hard for me to communicate everything each car was doing with each crew chief at each team.”

The effort hit a snag in qualifying when Chastain put the No. 15 Chevrolet 36th on the grid out of 39 cars. Still trying to figure out how to navigate his new ride, Chastian worried about how the early portion of the race would unfold.

“I thought it was going to take 100 laps to get up to speed here,” Chastain said. “I might be two or three laps down by then. We got up to speed pretty quick and was competitive. Pretty much my adrenaline was going the entire time in a good way, in that it kept me going throughout the whole Cup race. I never got tired, never felt I was struggling in the car.”

With an average running spot of 26.8, Chastain was 25th by the halfway point. At one point Chastain got into an intense battle with Cole Whitt to be the first car a lap down, swapping spots multiple times as the leaders raced around them.

When he coasted across the finish line, Chastain was ahead of Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and numerous Cup stars who had wrecked out of the event.

“I was able to pass, legitimately pass, some Cup cars and that just doesn’t happen,” Chastain said. “Starting that far back in the Cup Series, there’s no bad teams, no bad drivers either and we were competitive with them and racing them and I think it caught a lot of the other drivers off guard. Unfortunately, I pissed a few of them off that we were racing with them and they didn’t like it. I felt like I stood my ground.”

After the longest weekend of his NASCAR career, Chastain emerged from his first Cup race feeling “surprisingly well.”

“I was worried, for obvious reasons, I would be pretty worn out,” Chastain said. “I think I would have been, but all three races during the weekend we were fast, so that gets me excited.”

Chastain will continue with his Xfinity Series ride this weekend at Pocono. But after his impressive performance, Chastain says no plans are in the works just yet for another return to the Cup series.

“We need to get back and look at everything,” Chastain said. “There’s definitely a lot to think about. First things first, I just want to enjoy the fact I didn’t do anything too crazy.”

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