Long: Even as playoff run ends, Ross Chastain can’t stop smiling

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DOVER, Del. — Ross Chastain, whose run since Labor Day weekend included a tussle on the track with a Cup champion, a watermelon smash after his first career Xfinity win and one last desperate flurry Saturday, saw his fun-filled playoff journey end Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

Chastain, who finished 13th, missed advancing to the second round of the Xfinity playoffs by three points.

“We did all we could,” car owner Johnny Davis told the team on the radio after the checkered flag waved. “It wasn’t meant to be. Keep your heads up high.”

Chastain did, sharing the same smile he had when he took Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car to a win last month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

That ride with Ganassi was a three-race fairy tale but Chastain’s main ride this season — as it has been since 2015 — is with Johnny Davis Motorsports, an underfunded team based in South Carolina that has scored 37 top-10 finishes in 1,076 career starts.

Ross Chastain’s team watches the final laps of Saturday’s race at Dover. Photo: Dustin Long

“It’s not a disappointment. We had these guys,” Chastain said, noting cars from better funded teams such as Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and JR Motorsports, “we had them nervous we were going to beat them. That’s really cool. We did outrun a few of them. We took a big step forward this weekend and this year.”

A pit road speeding penalty on Lap 167 of the 200-lap race put Chastain at the back of the field and on the offensive. He bumped Matt Tifft in the corner. The contact sent Tifft up the track and into Chase Briscoe‘s car. Briscoe hit the wall to bring out the caution.

“I was trying to pass him,” Chastain said. “It’s my job. I bring my friends with me. He runs into me after the race. It’s all good.”

Tifft wasn’t impressed.

“What an idiot,” he said on the radio after the incident.

Tifft, the last driver to advance to the next round of the playoffs, was more understanding after the race.

“He was doing what he had to do,” Tifft said of Chastain. “I happened to be the one on the receiving end.”

That Chastain was in this position was among the heartwarming stories in the series. His JD Motorsports team had put in him that spot and then Chastain’s run with Chip Ganassi Racing at Darlington and Las Vegas got him into the playoffs.

Chastain won both stages at Darlington and battled former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the final stage. After Keselowski fell back, Harvick challenged Chastain. As they raced side-by-side in the corner, Harvick’s car slid up and made contact, forcing Chastain into the wall. Chastain came down the track and spun Harvick on the straightaway, upsetting Harvick.

“Got a really inexperienced guy in a really fast car that made a really bad move and then wrecked me,” Harvick said after the incident. “Probably the reason he’ll never get to drive many of them again.”

Two weeks later, in a race without Cup regulars, Chastain scored a dominating win and shared that he was not getting paid for his three races in the Ganassi car. The move to Ganassi’s car had been a gamble to show what he could do in a top car.

The eighth-generation watermelon farmer celebrated by smashing a watermelon at the start/finish line.

At Richmond, he finished second in Ganassi’s car. A win would have moved him to the next round. He placed 12th at the Charlotte Roval for Davis’ team last week.  Chastain entered Saturday’s race in the final transfer spot, nine points ahead of Austin Cindric.

Saturday, Cindric outscored Chastain 8-1 in stage points. That proved critical. Cindric went on to finish eighth to leapfrog Chastain in the standings.

Chastain admitted that the disappointment would hit later, but he was philosophical after the race.

“Something, I’ll never forget,” he said of his playoff run. “All of this. In my time here in NASCAR, it’s going to be over one day and seasons like this are the good ones. Seasons like last year and 2013 for me in the Trucks are terrible and you hope you never have to go through that again. Ultimately, they made me realize this season is one of the good ones.”

 

 

Premium Motorsports will cease Truck Series operation after 2018, auction equipment

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Five days after it earned its first top five in the series, Premium Motorsports announced Thursday it will not compete in the Camping World Truck Series next season.

The team, which has fielded entries in the series in 112 starts since 2015, is making the move “to be able to focus solely on their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing program in 2019.”

Premium will finish the season with its No. 49 Chevrolet, which is sponsored by Sobriety Nation. Wendell Chavous drove it for the first 19 races of the season. He retired from competition after last weekend’s Talladega race, where he earned his first career top five.

Nine other drivers have competed for the team throughout the season.

The team will auction off most of the its assets at the end of this month.

It has retained Gavel Auction Company NCAL6177 in Mooresville, North Carolina, for an auction to be held at 10 a.m. ET on Oct. 30.

 

Elliott Sadler begins final chapter with crew chief who revived career

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Elliott Sadler got his wish.

The 43-year-old JR Motorsports driver will end his NASCAR career racing “for all the marbles.”

Sadler, who announced the end of his full-time career in August, was determined to make the Round of 8 in the Xfinity playoffs. Then he could set out to fulfill the biggest wish of a career that began in 1995 – to be a NASCAR champion.

The final four races of Sadler’s career begins Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“It’s cool to know that my last four races that I’m running in are not just to fill the schedule,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot on the line. We want to go there and do a good job.”

These races are also Sadler’s final chance to win a championship with the man who helped resurrect his career in its twilight and who will try do the same for Jimmie Johnson.

I KNOW A GUY

Kevin Meendering’s name was first brought up to Sadler by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was October 2015 at Dover International Speedway and Sadler, then driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had just finished signing his deal to compete for JR Motorsports the next year.

Since returning to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2011, Sadler has won five times, but only once since 2013. He’d go winless in 2015.

Earnhardt thought the then 34-year-old Meendering was the solution to his friend’s problems.

The native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, had been with Hendrick Motorsports since 1999 when he was a 17-year-old intern in the team’s chassis department. By 2015, he had risen to lead engineer on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet, where the team earned eight wins, 52 top five and 96 top-10 finishes in 178 starts.

“I want him to come and be your crew chief,” Sadler recalled being told by Earnhardt. “He is one of the reasons we won the races we did later on in my career, he really changed my outlook on racing. He will do you a great job.'”

Three years later, Sadler can’t help but agree.

“Man, was he ever right.”

Together, Sadler and Meendering won three times in 2016 at Talladega, Darlington and Kentucky.

Along with 14 top fives and a series-leading 29 top 10s in 33 races that year, Sadler made it to the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But without Meendering due to a suspension, Sadler lost the title to Daniel Suarez.

In 2017, Sadler went winless, but again made it to the championship four with help from 12 top fives (tied with William Byron) and a series-leading 25 top 10s. But Sadler missed out on the title to Byron after late-race contact with Ryan Preece.

“Last year, just being so close it just makes you want to work that much harder,” Meendering said last week following the announcement he will work with Johnson next season. “Seeing the disappointment in the guys on the team and Elliott, you just want to get back there and do a little better. I don’t want to say try harder because you are putting everything you’ve got into it, but you just want to win that championship.”

Entering their final four races together, Sadler and Meendering have 38 top fives and 75 top 10s.

Those numbers boosted Meendering’s portfolio to help give him the nod to replace Chad Knaus as Johnson’s crew chief next year in the Cup Series.

“I’ve been doing this 23 years and he is by far, and I mean by far, the best crew chief I’ve ever worked with all the way across the board if you have a lot of boxes to check,” said Sadler, whose crew chiefs have included Mike Beam, Todd Parrott and 2014 Cup champion Rodney Childers. “He’s very well deserving of this opportunity and he’s showing you his loyalty. These last couple of years he’s had a ton of job offers to leave, but Hendrick is where’s he been since he started in high school and he wanted to stay in that program. His patience has paid off.”

But before Sadler walks off into the Florida sunset and Meendering begins his quest to give Johnson an eighth Cup title, they’ll make one final push to give Sadler his long sought after NASCAR title.

TUNNEL VISION

For Meendering, giving Sadler a championship is “100 percent of my focus” despite the announcement of his impending promotion.

Sadler enters the Round of 8 in fifth, tied with Cole Custer with 3,011 points. They trail Christopher Bell (3,044), Justin Allgaier (3,039) and Daniel Hemric (3,013).

Of the top five drivers remaining, only Bell and Allgaier have won this year.

“Those guys with the wins, they have distanced themselves obviously, but we are also coming around to some very good tracks for Elliott,” Meendering said. “Through that summer stretch with the road courses and stuff, that is not really our strong suit as a team, but now we get back to Kansas, Texas, those are really good tracks for Elliott and I don’t see any reason why we can’t make it to Homestead.”

In his seven starts at Kansas since 2011, Sadler has never finished worse than 12th and has three top fives, the most recent in 2016.

The race in Kansas, the series’ only visit to the 1.5-mile this season, is one that Sadler has viewed as pivotal even before the season.

“Always to me, the last couple of years (with how) our point system is, even before you go to Daytona in February, I know that Kansas is the second most important race of the whole entire season,” Sadler said. “Homestead by far is the most important. Kansas is by far the second most important because it’s how you dictate, start off that final round. That’s what my mindset is this week. I know how important Kansas is. …. That’s all I’m really focused on. I haven’t really let the outside stuff affect me yet.”

The “outside stuff” is that the next four races – 1,100 miles and 800 laps barring overtime finishes – are his last planned in NASCAR.

Sadler said he has a “mental block” about the races and they don’t feel any more special than previous seasons.

“I know deep down inside it’s my last ever shot at ever winning a NASCAR championship,” Sadler said. “I just haven’t got to that point for some reason.”

But that point will come and then it will be gone.

If he and Meendering are unable to make the championship race and win the title, how does Sadler want to be remembered?

“If not, I hope people know we did it the right way,” Sadler said. “We did it fair and we did it even and we did it like we were supposed to. I was just a small town boy from Southern Virginia that was able to make it in the sport that he loved and cherished the most and that we did it the right way.”

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NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Kansas Speedway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend for the Cup and Xfinity Series as they visit Kansas Speedway.

Cup playoff teams will try to avoid elimination as Xfinity teams begin their second round.

Here’s this weekend’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Oct. 19

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, Oct. 20

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m – Cup garage open

10:30 – 11:20 a.m. – Cup practice (CNBC, MRN)

11:40 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (CNBC)

12:45 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

2:25 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

2:55 p.m. – Kansas Lottery 300; 200 laps/300 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 21

9 a.m. – Cup garage opens

12:20 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

1:40 p.m. – Driver introductions

2:20 p.m. – Hollywood Casino 400; 267 lap/400.5 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR America: Will anyone below the bubble advance?

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In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Steve Letarte said: “When you get to the Round of 12, it’s not about the points; it’s who you’ve got to beat.”

Brad Keselowski trails Martin Truex Jr. by 18 points. Letarte recalled a conversation with Paul Wolfe in which he questioned if it was realistic to beat Truex by that margin at Kansas. The answer was “no”.

The other three drivers below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8 are in an even more serious predicament.

Ryan Blaney is 22 points below the cutoff line. With his Talladega penalty, Kyle Larson is 36 points in arrears and Alex Bowman is 68 points behind. The most points available in a race is 60.

Keselowski’s surge at the end of the regular season that carried over to a playoff win at Las Vegas serves as an example of how these drivers can find a path to advancement. So does the fact that since the elimination-style playoffs were implemented, several drivers have earned dramatic wins in the final races of a round.

“Look at the playoffs,” Letarte continued. “I’m pretty scared to … say anything because Vegas was crazy, the Roval was crazy. Talladega was actually supposed to be crazy and it was calm.”

For more on whether the driver below the bubble can advance, watch the video above.

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