Recent NASCAR Cup winners have made great strides in last five years

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As young drivers continue to collect checkered flags in the NASCAR Cup Series, where they were five years ago shows how far they have come.

Ross Chastain’s victory Sunday at Circuit of the Americas was his first in Cup and made it 12 consecutive points races that a driver 30 or under has won in the series. 

Chastain, 29, became the sixth different winner in the first six Cup races of the season. Five of those drivers were not in Cup in 2017. Only Kyle Larson, who won at Auto Club Speedway in February, was in Cup five years ago.

As for the others:

Chastain was in his third full season in the Xfinity Series. He would not make his NASCAR Cup debut until June 4, 2017 at Dover. Chastain drove for car owner owner Jay Robinson and finished 20th that day.

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric were both rookies in the Camping World Truck Series. They both were driving for Brad Keselowski Racing, which shut down after the 2017 season. 

William Byron was a rookie in the Xfinity Series five years ago. He would go on to win the championship that year.

Alex Bowman was serving as the simulator driver for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017. He would run two Xfinity races (winning once) and one Truck race all season.

“There is no right or wrong way to do this,” Chastain said after his win about how he climbed the sport’s ranks. “You see guys every year take a different path. If you don’t have the resources to go rent or get in, or you’re not hired to drive something really good and in the lower series, it’s just the economics of this sport. You kind of have to bring something.

Wherever you can plug in. … You just race everything you can. As long as you’re at the track, you have a chance to — you just never know, right? I’ve carried around an extra set of driving stuff in case somebody got sick. I’ve blown up in races and started races and then gotten in somebody else’s truck to finish the race for them.

“You just have to keep going.”

Chastain noted that’s how he got a ride in Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race at COTA.

He said Mario Gosselin was looking for a driver for the race. Chastain said he would.

“He couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t believe that he let me drive,” said Chastain, who drove 77 NASCAR national series races in 2019 and 74 such races in 2018. “I think that it’s surreal that I get to drive race cars for a living, so if you are able to do that in this sport, if you can pay your bills, and you have to give up a lot. You have to give up a personal life.

“Some guys balance both. I’ve never been able to balance both. I’m 29 and single and just chasing race cars. I know it sounds silly to say, but that’s a conscious effort to do that.”

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Ross Chastain gave Trackhouse Racing its first Cup win Sunday, but the organization had shown nearly all season that it was in position to win with Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

Trackhouse Racing has had at least one car finish in the top five in the last five races, the longest active streak for any Cup team. 

The Next Gen car was thought to help close the competition, but car owner Justin Marks says it is more than that.

“I think a lot of it has to did with this car showcasing the talent of the people behind it,” said Marks, who owns the team with Pitbull. “I think that we were coming out of an era in the sport where you could engineer a piece of equipment that was so much — so far superior to everybody else’s, but now we do truly basically have the same stuff.

“I say it’s an execution car. It’s a car that shines when people work together and really try to prepare well and methodically and think about it. It’s a driver’s car. We have two incredible race car drivers. I’ve said this about Daniel all along, and I’ve said it about Ross for 10 years that I’ve known him. These are championship-caliber talents. We just need to get them in a spot where they can shine.

“And Chevrolet is strong right now. Our preparation is on point. Everybody is super motivated, so we’re just very — workflow is super effective during the week. I say all that knowing there’s a piece of me that I don’t know really besides the fact that we just have really, really good people that are united and working hard and preparing well, executing well.”

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The Cup Series is expected to return to Circuit of the Americas next season, according to a report in the Austin-America Statesman.

The newspaper stated that Speedway Motorsports had a contract to lease the facility for a NASCAR weekend in 2021 and an option for 2022. The newspaper reported that track officials have agreed to add an option for next year. 

Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer for Speedway Motorsports, told NBC Sports last week about COTA: “We’re really committed to that marketplace and think it’s going to be good for the sport, and it has been already.”