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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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Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.