Friday 5: How a pit road conversation helped Ross Chastain see things differently

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Ross Chastain wasn’t sure what to expect when Kevin Harvick approached him on pit road after the June 27 Pocono Cup race.

There’s a history between the two drivers. Harvick called Chastain a “really inexperienced guy in a really fast car” after their incident thee years ago in the Xfinity race at Darlington.

Chastain is known as an aggressive driver. It helped him climb from low-budget Xfinity rides to a full-time Cup ride this past season with Chip Ganassi Racing. That aggression also has gotten Chastain in trouble on the track. Just as it did that day at Pocono.

Harvick saw it all. He offered Chastain some advice after the race.

“Hey man, you realize if you just back off one notch, you’re going to finish fifth or sixth today,” Harvick told Chastain.

Instead, Chastain placed 26th because of an aggressive move that backfired.

Chastain has tried to rein his aggression since. Harvick has noticed.

“I think Ross Chastain is a great example of learning how to race the proper way,” Harvick said during the playoffs. “He’s just done it faster than most. … I think his progression has been fun to watch just because that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”

Looking back on that day at Pocono, though, reminds Chastain of the mistake he made in that race and how far he’s come.

Chastain was racing Christopher Bell for second place with about 40 laps left when trouble occurred.

“I had position on Christopher Bell, almost cleared him off of (Turn) 2 and he comes back,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “Then down into (Turn) 3, I should have just fell in line. I would have been in third place, and I’d been fine.

“Instead, I drive into (Turn) 3 wide open, knowing that I can’t make it, but I’m going to clear him and catch it and air block it. But he did the same thing, so I was never going to make it. Kevin (running behind them) saw that.

“I hit Christopher into the wall. I cut a tire. He cuts a tire. Then you watch back on SMT on our data, you can see I drove in 100 feet deeper than I had all day with a car next to me trying to take the spot. No. That’s the kind of things I’m talking about (about being overly aggressive).”

So, how did Chastain change?

He got help from Josh Wise, a former driver who works with several competitors, including Chastain, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick. Wise taught Chastain to remove one word from his vocabulary.

That word?

Chastain, standing in his team’s hauler, turned to open a drawer and pulled out a pen. He grabbed a paper towel and wrote “take” on it. He wouldn’t say the word.

“You’re not to use that word anymore, and you’re not going to do it on the track,” Chastain said Wise told him.

While there are still times to be aggressive, there are also times to be smart. Chastain looks at his third-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington as an example of racing smart.

“I had several restarts on old tires at Darlington with high horsepower and low downforce, next to two guys running for the championship and playoff guys all around me,” Chastain said. “I didn’t hook anybody, and I didn’t run into anybody until I got into Kyle (Busch) late. I did more damage to my car than his trying to pull out and pass him.

“That was where I was very aware of what they were doing, and I had a few instances where I would have crashed in the spring Darlington race if I had been in that position. I would have crashed Denny (Hamlin) one time into (Turn) 1. I would have crashed Kyle (Busch) one time. I definitely would have. The progression there at Darlington was like ‘OK, we can do this.’”

Chastain’s lesson came in a season where he ran only 41 total NASCAR races — the fewest number of national series races he’s run since his Cup debut in 2017.

Chastain ran 77 Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races in 2019. Only Kyle Busch has run more national series races in a season than Chastain since 2006.

Chastain said he missed not having practice at most events this season over running in more Xfinity and Truck races.

“Man, I would feel so much more prepared if I had practice … even a 20-minute session, give me something,” Chastain said.

Practice and qualifying are expected to return for all Cup events next season.

That extra track time next year will be helpful as he moves to Trackhouse Racing, looking to improve upon his 20th-place finish in the points this season.

2. Staying in place

For the first time since 2017, Daniel Suarez will go into the offseason not worried about where he’ll race.

This past season marked the fourth consecutive year he had been with a different Cup team. He was with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019, joined Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020, and ran for Trackhouse Racing this year.

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
Daniel Suarez finished a season-best fourth on the dirt at Bristol this season. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I don’t think people really understand the difference that makes,” Suarez said of staying in one place vs. jumping around to teams. “Every single time you have to start from zero, beginning with people, mechanics, engineers, that communication.”

Suarez said he feels comfortable at Trackhouse Racing, which completed its first season in Cup last weekend at Phoenix. Suarez finished 25th in the points. He ended the season with four top-15 finishes in the last seven races.

“I feel what gets me more excited is how the team is growing with me, and I’ve been able to influence how I can make the team better for me,” Suarez said. “I’ve never had that before.

“Pretty much in the past, (it was) ‘This is what you got and good luck.’ That was it. If it was good, great. If it was not so good, then too bad. That was it. My voice wasn’t loud enough to make adjustments.

“I feel with Trackhouse, they listen to me. We are making a few adjustments here and there, and we’ve been growing together. I like that a lot. I feel the future of Trackhouse Racing is very bright.

The organization will expand to a two-car operation with the addition of Ross Chastain.

“I think he’s a very talented driver,” Suarez said. “I also think he’s hungry, and he’s willing to work hard, and l like that.”

3. Looking ahead

This season wasn’t going to be easy. Matt Tifft and BJ McLeod knew that as owners of Live Fast Motorsports, which made its Cup debut this season.

With one year before the Next Gen debuted, the team was careful with its money and how much it invested in the current car, knowing that the car would be obsolete after this season.

The result was the team placed 32nd in the owners standings. Tifft and McLeod have higher goals with the Next Gen car and what it can do for smaller teams.

“I definitely am pleased with the fact that we met our goals, but we are very hungry to be better than we are right now,” McLeod told NBC Sports.

NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders
Live Fast Motorsports was one of three Cup teams to debut this season. BJ McLeod drove the car to a season-high ninth-place finish in the regular-season finale at Daytona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

They lasted longer than some might have thought. McLeod said they got their first call in March asking if they were interested in selling their charter.

“Matt and I, we didn’t buy this to make money, especially short term,” McLeod said. “We do hope to have it profitable and make a living doing this for the next two decades. We bought this because we want to groom ourselves into being the next Penske, RCR, Hendrick, Haas, Gibbs, whoever you want to say. That’s what we want to do.”

McLeod said there was “never a temptation” to sell the charter the team got for the 2021 season. He said the first offer was for “$10 million plus … and it kept going up from there.”

After getting through this season, what’s next for Live Fast Motorsports?

“For Matt and I both, it’s keep building our advertising partners and get our budget to where we can afford engine leases,” McLeod said. “We’re still going to own our own engines next year, and we don’t want to do that in ’23.”

4. Big bet

After Daniel Hemric won the Xfinity championship last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, he shared just how much of a bet he took on himself this season.

“I took a ride this year to not take a dime, to not get paid, to have to perform to be able to put food on the table,” he said of his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.

He later said: “I knew that was the only chance for me to rebuild my career.”

Hemric was the 2019 Cup Rookie of the Year, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in his ride at Richard Childress Racing. He ran 21 of the 33 Xfinity races in 2020 for JR Motorsports, sitting out the rest of the races. He moved to Gibbs for this season.

“This sport, you live in from the time you’re five years old, you reached the peak, now you’re on the decline,” Hemric said. “ That was an experience I never wanted to experience, hope nobody else ever has to experience.”

Hemric will look to defend his Xfinity title next year at Kaulig Racing.

“Any parent will tell you that when it’s you and your wife, it’s one thing, you think you’ll figure it out,” he said. “When you bring another person in this world, like our little girl Rhen, that’s a different perspective.

“To bet on yourself, the livelihood of your family, your daughter eating, putting food on the table, that changes it.  Knowing the decisions I had to make last week to give our family the shot we did tonight, there’s no more motivation needed than that.”

5. Familiar scene

Cup champion Kyle Larson led 2,581 laps this season. That is more than what the next two drivers in laps led combined to lead this season.

Denny Hamlin led 1,502 laps. Chase Elliott led 952 laps. They combined to lead 2,454 laps.

Larson led 127 more laps than Hamlin and Elliott combined.

Larson’s total is the most laps led by a driver in a season since Jeff Gordon led 2,610 laps in his 1995 championship season.

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Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.