Justin Marks on Ross Chastain: ‘He’s going to be a NASCAR champion’

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MADISON, Ill. — On Ross Chastain’s worst day of the season, car owner Justin Marks looked ahead to what could be Chastain’s best day.

Marks defended his 29-year-old driver after incidents with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott in Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway and noted that Chastain — who has two wins this season — is on a path to greatness.

“This is a very, very competitive sport and you fight for every single inch,” Marks told NBC Sports. “The thing is that he’s a newcomer in the top five and the established top-five guys don’t like there’s a newcomer there. I’m super, super proud of him. 

“He’s very aggressive. That’s what is required in winning races and ultimately it’s going to get him to where he’s going to be a NASCAR champion — his aggression matched with his talent.”

Sunday was Chastain’s 130th Cup start. If he wins the championship this year, it would come in his 151st series start. Only four drivers since 2000 won a Cup title by their 155th career series start:

  • Brad Keselowski won the 2012 title in his 125th Cup start.
  • Tony Stewart won the 2002 title in his 140th Cup start.
  • Matt Kenseth claimed the 2003 title in his 147th Cup start.
  • Kurt Busch scored the 2004 crown in his 150th Cup start.

A key difference between those drivers and Chastain, though, is that each of those four were with elite Cup teams either from the beginning or early on in their Cup career. The first 79 of Chastain’s 130 Cup starts were primarily with teams that were underfunded. He’s truly had only about 50 starts with a good organization and this year is his first to run at the front. 

Chastain’s nine top-10 finishes this season for Trackhouse Racing are tied for second in the series with Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and Elliott. Only Kyle Busch has more top 10s this year at 11.

“I would say the Trackhouse guys have been fast about everywhere,” said Busch, who finished second this past weekend to Joey Logano. 

For those who question if Chastain should be considered a title threat, let alone a favorite, AJ Allmendinger saw a championship-level driver when he raced Chastain for the win at Circuit of the Americas. 

“When I tried to chase him down at COTA, I thought, ‘Man, I might be trying to chase down a champion,’ Allmendinger told Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast in April. “That’s how strong he is. … I wouldn’t call him a dark horse anymore.”

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After Joey Logano’s second victory in the last four points races, crew chief Paul Wolfe still doesn’t know how good his team is after 15 races with the Next Gen car.

“It’s just how up and down it is right now with the learning curve and going to new race tracks and trying to understand the car,” Wolfe said after Logano defeated Kyle Busch in a dramatic overtime Sunday at World Wide Technology Raceway.

An example of the topsy-turvy season Logano has had came last month when Logano finished four laps behind the leaders in 29th at Dover. Wolfe called that “probably our worst race of the year to date.”

Six days later, Logano led a race-high 107 laps and won from the pole at Darlington Raceway. 

“It’s a roller coaster ride, that’s for sure,” Logano said Sunday of this season.

NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at Gateway
Joey Logano has scored victories at Darlington Raceway and World Wide Technology Raceway since early May. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano has not had more than two consecutive top-10 finishes this season. He twice has had back-to-back results of 17th or worse.

“I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve seen here is that fast cars, yes, win races, and it’s nice to have a fast car, but it seems like there are so many different things going on,” Logano said. 

“If you can just get yourself to the front, you have a chance no matter how fast your car is or not fast your car is. You have a chance if you are in the front.

“You just have to figure out a way to get there. It’s different for each track and how do you that. I don’t think anyone has it figured out yet.”

Wolfe said limited practice at most tracks adds to the challenge of understanding the car’s nuances. 

“It was nice this weekend to get 50 minutes,” Wolfe said, noting the expanded practice since this was an inaugural race for Cup at the 1.25-mile speedway. “It’s not a lot, but it gives us the opportunity to try a few things and try to build our notebook as we move forward.”

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Camping World Truck Series driver Zane Smith was all smiles after finishing 17th in his Cup debut Sunday with RFK Racing. Smith filled in for Chris Buescher, who was out after testing positive for COVID-19.

Smith, who turns 23 years old Thursday, said racing at the Cup level was different.

“Just crazy how hard everyone races from front to last,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m really happy with today, how everything went. At the beginning of the day, I was hoping for a top 25 and hopefully completing all the laps. It was super hard to pass. … we ended up 17th I want to say and beat my boss (Brad Keselowski, who was 20th).

“That was just an awesome day. Unbelievable really. I still can’t believe I got to race a Cup race with the little experience I have really.”

Crew chief Scott Graves liked what he saw from Smith during the weekend.

“He improved a ton,” Graves said. “Just really impressed with his racing. He was really patient and figured out how to pass people and worked on setting them up and getting the pass where he needed to. Did a great job for us.”

Graves said Buescher is expected to be back with the team this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

“I know he felt a lot better (Saturday),” Graves said. “Just tired but felt a lot better.”