CONCORD, N.C. — Ross Chastain had a lot on his mind.
It was the third weekend in March and the 25-year-old driver was hustling from one job to another.
With helmet in hand, Chastain walked from the Xfinity Series garage to the Cup garage at Auto Club Speedway. There he would climb into Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet for practice around the 2-mile oval.
He was “nervous.”
He had just left his Xfinity car and was preparing to go “200 and something MPH,” which he would be reminded of by a large digital screen displaying his speed every time he entered Turn 1.
“This is about to be real,” Chastain thought.
Chastain had no idea the next few minutes would change his life and career six months later.
Chastain wasn’t familiar with the man who called his name and approached.
“Hey, hi. How are you doing, sir?” Chastain told the stranger.
The man replied: “I’m Jeff Carpoff, I want to introduce myself.”
Carpoff is the co-founder and CEO of DC Solar, a primary sponsor of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity and Cup Series.
While Chastain was just meeting Carpoff, he was no stranger to DC Solar.
In addition to his full-time jobs of racing for JD Motorsports in Xfinity and Premium in Cup, Chastain has had an occasional side hustle over the last couple of years driving DC Solar’s motorhome to tracks, as he did in the spring at Martinsville.
“I was never a client of theirs, but I just wanted to be a part of their group, their family,” Chastain said. “Anytime they need help I’m the guy they call. … Then I can hang out with them, I really am friends with them.”
Carpoff had been keeping tabs on Chastain during his four years at JD Motorsports, a team that runs four cars but Chastain says has “enough people to run two.”
Before departing, Carpoff said, “I want you to know we’re going to try and do something for you. We don’t know what, we don’t know how. Don’t know if it’s going to work out this year, it might be down the road. But we like what you do and we really want you to be part of it. We want you to be part of our family.”
Even though he didn’t hear anything from Carpoff the next few months, the conversation remained with Chastain.
“You don’t forget a conversation like that,” he said. “With somebody like Jeff, you know he’s serious. But it went so long, what are the chances it happens this year?”
Chastain laid in bed Sunday morning having woken up before his alarm could have a say in the matter.
A realization quickly hit him.
“It was probably 20 seconds I would say before I said out loud, ‘We won. Oh my gosh. We won yesterday. That’s insane.’ I had forgot all about it,” Chastain said. “Honestly, I don’t believe that I won. It’s insane.”
The concept of being a NASCAR winner became even more surreal early Monday morning. He arrived home at 3 a.m. after flying back from Las Vegas. He promptly downloaded video of the DC Solar 300, in which he’d driven Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet. It was just his second start with the team.
“To watch it back, it didn’t seem real,” Chastain said. “I saw the car. I knew the moves I was making in the car, so to see it on TV, see the onboard (cameras) from other guys of how my car looked. I honestly (had to say), ‘That’s me. That’s me in there.’ It’s crazy.”
He watched himself lead 180 of 200 laps and fend off Justin Allgaier and the field through three restarts in the final 20 laps. The win came in his 215th NASCAR start.
“We kicked their butts,” Chastain said. “That’s really cool to say and I’m proud to say it. I’m proud to say that we went to Las Vegas, where the first time I ever went there … and start-and-parked. In 2012 (in the Camping World Truck Series race). We come back in 2018 and win the fall Xfinity race. That’s insane. That’s not supposed to happen.”
Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric, a fellow playoff driver, was not surprised by Chastain’s success.
“He did exactly what he was supposed to do getting in a race car of that caliber,” Hemric said Tuesday. “He’s prepped and drove stuff that wasn’t nowhere near that level. Him taking those chances to drive stuff that was lesser equipment is what gave him that opportunity. I promise you no one knows that better than he does. It’s rewarding for me, even though I was getting frustrated chasing him all race, it was so cool to see him make the most of that shot. It gives everybody hope, right?”
Chastain has one more race with Chip Ganassi Racing in Friday’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). After that, it’s back to Chastain’s usual job of racing for JD Motorsports and six races of scrapping and clawing for top-15 and top-10 finishes.
But for one afternoon, thanks to an almost passing conversation with Carpoff, Chastain was the man to beat.
“I’ve had so many (conversations like that),” Chastain said. “People genuinely are always trying to put together a program, whether it’s a third-party company or whatever. Everybody’s trying to hustle. That’s what I love about NASCAR. We all hustle. … I knew it was a chance then, but I never thought it would happen.”