The last 10 weeks provided surreal sight after surreal sight as the NASCAR community and the world at large navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of those odd sights came on May 5 courtesy of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch. In a video posted to Twitter, Busch showed off his racing gear as he prepped to take part in go-kart races at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina, to get ready for NASCAR’s return 12 days later at Darlington Raceway.
At one point, Busch showed two figures social distancing in the parking lot. Busch referred to them as “secret weapons.”
The one sitting on a curb was 48-year-old Matt Kenseth, recently brought in from the cold to drive the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet 17 months after his last NASCAR start.
The other was 27-year-old Ross Chastain, the CGR development driver who competes full-time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing.
Making it more surreal: Chastain was the driver many expected to get the nod to replace Kyle Larson after his firing by CGR.
Let’s do this. pic.twitter.com/pGwrnZuOHr
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) May 5, 2020
Chastain is all about opportunities to race.
Last year, he competed in 77 of a possible 92 national NASCAR series races, competing full-time in the Truck Series while missing only one of 36 Cup Series races.
Before NASCAR entered its COVID-19 imposed lockdown in March, Chastain had competed in every national NASCAR series race – four Cup races, four Xfinity races and two Truck races. Over the course of those 10 races, Chastain drove vehicles for five different teams: Kaulig Racing, Niece Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sieg Racing and Roush Fenway Racing as a substitute driver for Ryan Newman (and as one of its drivers in the Pro Invitational iRacing Series).
“It’s just been when opportunities come up in the top three levels of NASCAR like, yes, yes, take them as a driver and make the best of them,” Chastain told NBC Sports.
Chastain will be back in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 (Chip Ganassi Racing prepared) car for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. But before that, he returns to his full-time job driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series, which is scheduled to end its 10-week hiatus tonight at Darlington.
But for a brief window of time last month, Chastain seemed the logical choice to take over the CGR’s No. 42, and to be in it last Sunday.
However, that wasn’t part of the plan.
“Obviously, what all happened (with Larson) hit everybody really fast,” Chastain said. “I don’t know all of the details about it. But I just know that in my mind, we’re on a path. … Obviously, when Chip and (Chief Operating Officer) Doug Duchardt and (Managing Director) Max Jones and I … sat down two years ago or I guess the middle of 2018 and set out this plan, there was a lot of other factors involved like we all know and that all went away.
“All the other factors that supported me with them went away and they’ve kept me on, they’ve kept building out a plan for me and they didn’t give up whenever they very easily could have. … I just know that they haven’t given up on me and I surely haven’t given up on them.”
And you won’t hear Chastain complaining about having Kenseth as an unexpected teammate five months into the year.
“Too much of our plan was in place and obviously getting to know Matt now, he’s the right guy,” Chastain said. “He knows stuff and has been a part of stuff that I only watched as a kid on TV and he just rattles off this scenario, that scenario, this racetrack, that race car. And it’s great to be around him a little bit and learn from for sure.”
Kenseth and Busch took to the track Sunday at Darlington in the first NASCAR race in 71 days. It was also the first NASCAR race without Chastain in the field since last year’s Xfinity finale in Miami. Chastain expected to talk to Kenseth and Busch “a bit annoyingly” afterward to get feedback.
“They can just talk in such literal terms of, everything else aside, what did the track do?” said Chastain. “Doesn’t matter what kind of race car you had, if you were the leader, you were 32nd place, what did the racetrack do? What were the trends? Was it normal Darlington? What do you see? That’s where I found that Kurt is really, it’s why Matt says he’s such a good teammate so often is that he just can articulate what we all think, but we can’t put in words. … He genuinely wants to help.”
When Chastain straps into his No. 10 car at Darlington, it won’t be his first time in it since March. Last week, he and teammate Justin Haley visited Kaulig Racing’s shop on the Richard Childress Racing campus in Welcome, North Carolina, and gave their cars for the races at Darlington and Charlotte (Monday, May 25) shake down drives.
“We did the Charlotte car first and it worked fine, drove for two laps around the RCR compound and hopped over into the Darlington one,” Chastain said.
That’s when the team discovered an issue on Chastain’s car that could have resulted in a “big scare” tonight.
“We actually had a (radio) wiring harness in the Darlington car that did not work,” Chastain said. “I couldn’t hear my crew and they couldn’t hear me.”
Chastain said his team “kind of felt silly. … We all were laughing like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then as soon as that happened and we replaced the whole wiring harness … we were like, ‘Okay, it was all worth it.”
Chastain feels “confident” going into Darlington, the track where he made his debut with CGR two years ago in the Xfinity race and had a good shot at a win before an incident with Kevin Harvick. That performance helped lead to his signing with CGR later that year.
But Chastain admits “just because I had a good run there two years ago does not mean a whole lot.”
“I’ve used the end of that race as motivation for a lot of stuff and a lot of training,” he said. “Looking back at it. Yeah, obviously, you want to go replicate how the first two thirds that race went, if you can, and then clean up the end.”
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Feels like the first day of harvest! @NutrienAgRetail | @KauligRacing @TooToughToTame | #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/i9XNCdXdR7
— Ross Chastain (@RossChastain) May 19, 2020