Ross Chastain‘s NASCAR journey began 11 years ago, running five races for backmarker Truck Series teams.
After seven years in NASCAR’s feeder series, overproducing in the underfunded equipment he found himself driving, Chastain got his first taste of winning equipment in 2018.
A series of ups and downs followed, but no high was ever as sweet as Sunday’s.
Chastain finally inked a new chapter in his racing career Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, claiming his first NASCAR Cup Series win on the 3.41-mile road course after a last-lap shove of AJ Allmendinger that sent him to Victory Lane.
“It’s insane,” Chastain said. “To go up against some of the best with AJ, I mean, I know he is going to be upset with me, but we raced hard, both of us, and he owes me one.
“But when it comes to a Cup win, man, I can’t let that go down without a fight.”
That’s what Chastain has had to do throughout his rise through NASCAR’s ranks — scratch, claw and fight to make sure he stayed in the sport.
In 2018, his eighth season fighting through NASCAR’s upper echelon, Chastain was driving full-time for JD Motorsports. He was doing well despite the team’s lack of resources, nipping at the heels of playoff contention. But he was also coming to terms with his career and what steps he’d have to take sooner than later — on his family’s watermelon farm in Florida, not the racetrack.
“Several years ago, I thought I had found my niche in the sport,” Chastain said Sunday. “I thought I found a comfortable spot. I thought I could make a living. It wasn’t glamorous by any means, but it was a way to stay in the sport that I loved and do what I loved.
“And I was preparing myself to get more involved with the farm back home and probably live in Florida more, travel to the races on the weekends, and not put a lot of effort, put more effort into the farm during the week, and then come back to the races.
“I was a few years out from that, but I had come to terms with that, and then in 2018 that all changed.”
That’s when Chip Ganassi offered a three-race deal in his Xfinity program’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Chastain pounced, nearly won his first outing at Darlington before an incident with Kevin Harvick, and won two weeks later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Those three races changed the perception of Chastain in NASCAR and propelled him into what was set to be a full-time Xfinity ride with CGR until an FBI raid on sponsor DC Solar sank those plans.
That marked one of multiple points that Chastain was forced to wonder where the next opportunity would come from — or what to do when his those situations came to abrupt halts.
But his passion was always there, evidenced by a 2019 journey from Pocono to Watkins Glen to Eldora and back to The Glen that featured a camper, Greyhound bus and an SUV (that had a flat tire) to complete the trip.
Fast forward to June 30, 2021, when it was announced that Chip Ganassi Racing was being sold to Justin Marks. Chastain, of course, was the driver of the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet and was testing Chevrolet’s wheel force car at Dover Motor Speedway.
After a half-hour of disbelief and fear, Chastain worked up the nerve to text Marks: “I want this.”
“There were some days there where I didn’t know (my future),” Chastain recalled. “Turns out Justin pretty much knew all along.”
Perhaps it’s that much more fitting that Chastain’s first win in NASCAR’s premier series is also the first for Trackhouse Racing.
Marks’ relationship with Chastain dates back to 2011, when Marks sold seats to Chastain ahead of his truck debut for Stacy Compton’s now-defunct team. The two grew a close bond and Marks believed in Chastain’s ability — even when Chastain didn’t. Even Sunday in the midst of burnout smoke and smashed watermelons.
“I believed for a long time, but Justin asked me on the frontstretch, ‘Do you believe yet?'” Chastain said. “I would say that I still struggle with that. I don’t view myself as a Cup Series winning racecar driver. I just feel like I have to work to get there, and I’m not there yet. There’s so many mistakes I make.”
Those mistakes still led him to Victory Lane, his fourth consecutive top-three finish.
Marks, who started this program as a one-car operation at the beginning of the 2021 season, owns Chastain’s car as well as the No. 99 Chevrolet of Daniel Suarez. Suarez started second and led all 15 laps of the opening stage before pitting. Suarez’s fortune faded, as did his power steering for the final 28 laps, and he finished 24th.
But Trackhouse cars have been running at or near the front all season, proving Sunday’s triumph was no fluke.
“This was an ambitious thing to sort of dream up, and I asked a lot of people that had a lot of experience in this sport and seen a lot of teams come and go to trust me and to commit to Trackhouse,” Marks said. “And so to be here not even a year and a half into our existence, I’m just proud of everybody that committed. …
“We knew what (Chastain) was capable of doing, and he has proved it the last month at Trackhouse. And I think we’ve really just opened a door for him and (crew chief Phil Surgen) and the (No.) 1 team moving forward.”
Moving forward involves an introspective look at what transpired in those final corners. Chastain and Allmendinger, on a partial schedule this year with Kaulig Racing, battled hard throughout the day with some contact throughout. And into the final of 20 turns on the circuit, Chastain laid on Allmendinger’s rear bumper.
That contact shoved Allmendinger wide and into Alex Bowman, sending those cars sliding and spinning while Chastain got the checkered flag. Chastain said he stands by his moves but acknowledged he’s ruffled feathers to get where he is, including those of Allmendinger, who was his teammate at Kaulig in 2020 for a full Xfinity season.
“He has taught me a lot, and I’m sure that our friendship will hurt for this,” Chastain said of Allmendinger. “I feel like I had started to win some of his friendship back, and just being nice to each other when you see each other. It took a while.
“I hate that because I’ve lived through that in my career for 12th place in Xfinity. I’ve fought, and I’ve roughed people up and gotten into people. I’ve wrecked Justin Marks. He was going to win Road America in 2016, 2017. I wrecked him and James Davison for no reason. It’s not lost on me that I make some of the same mistakes. It’s just staring down a Cup Series win. I just couldn’t let that go.”
Whether or not he sees himself as such, Chastain is a Cup Series winner, as is team owner Marks. The team’s collective performance this season has proven its two cars can win any week.
The question now is how many trophies can they collect.