Ross Chastain searches for line between aggressive and too aggressive


Auto racing is a sport whose lifeblood is pumped by aggression, but at what point does that aggression cross the line into overly dangerous driving?

That answer perhaps is different for every driver, team owner, official and fan.

In NASCAR, the man in the middle of that discussion at the moment is Ross Chastain, whose aggressive driving nature has produced complaints from other drivers and resulted in Chastain offering a post-race apology and admitting that he raced over his head.

Chastain’s profile has been lifted this season because Trackhouse Racing has provided him with fast cars at virtually every stop, putting him into position to grapple with leading drivers and, occasionally, to irritate them with bold – sometimes too bold – moves.

Trackhouse owner Justin Marks and a growing Chastain fan base – they’re often seen wearing Chastain’s watermelon-themed caps and T-shirts – have endorsed Chastain’s driving style, while others, notably Denny Hamlin, who promised retaliation, have been very critical.

Chastain is not the first – and won’t be the last – driver to be in this gathering fire. Over the years, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jimmy Spencer, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and a long list of others have been accused of driving over the line.

And then there’s Ernie Irvan.

In the early 1990s, Irvan became a target of heavy criticism for reckless driving as he tried to climb through the NASCAR ranks. He had rolled in from the West Coast a decade earlier and worked through short-track racing looking for an opening to bigger things. He caught the eye of Earnhardt, who occasionally provided Irvan with financial backing.

Daytona 500
Ernie Irvan celebrates his 1991 Daytona 500 win. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

As Irvan built a presence in Cup, he sometimes outran his own front bumper, as garage veterans might say. He pushed his car into spaces that were too small and made dangerous passes that resulted in multi-car crashes.

The big trouble began at Darlington Raceway in April 1990. Irvan, several laps down, raced leader Ken Schrader aggressively as Schrader tried to pass, and they crashed in the fourth turn. Several other cars couldn’t avoid the mess, and Neil Bonnett suffered a significant head injury that kept him out of racing for several years.

A year later, Irvan was at the center of a 20-car crash at Talladega Superspeedway. That accident resulted in Kyle Petty suffering a broken leg.

Several races later, Irvan and Hut Stricklin were involved in a major crash at Pocono Raceway, and Irvan again was blamed.

When the tour arrived at Talladega that May, the tension surrounding Irvan had reached its peak. He had picked up a nickname: Swervin’ Irvan. The more critical residents of the garage used a tougher term: Gurney Ernie.

NASCAR officials asked veteran drivers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip to meet with Irvan in an attempt to change his direction.

“We pointed out that he was getting himself in a lot of trouble and wrecking cars and people were upset with him,” Waltrip said. “He wasn’t going to have a future in the sport if he didn’t correct his ways. He said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You need to get up in the drivers meeting Sunday and apologize.’ ”

On Saturday before the Sunday Talladega race, Irvan walked through the garage area several times and was seen talking to drivers and team owners. On Sunday, in a rare moment, he stood before the podium in the pre-race drivers meeting and apologized.

“I’ve lost the respect of a lot of drivers and car owners in this garage area,” said Irvan, clearly uncomfortable. “That hurts. I’ve drove a little overaggressive some. I’m going to work on trying to be a little more patient. I want to earn everybody’s respect back. I like to be liked in the garage area. I appreciate maybe you guys give me a shot at it. I definitely want to be everybody’s friend in here.”

Most of the drivers in attendance applauded.

Irvan slowly cleaned up his act, won races and became a weekly victory threat before head injuries eventually forced him into early retirement.

Thirty years after being the center of negative attention, Irvan said he had to gain the respect of other drivers by respecting them more.

“Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty both told me that you have to respect your fellow competitors,” Irvan told NBC Sports. “If they’re in positions ahead of you, they have every right to be there. If you try to steal it from them, there will be consequences. If they’re faster, then pass them clean. That was hard to believe coming from Earnhardt.

“When it’s all said and done, I don’t know one incident where I said that I was going to take a guy out. It became a matter of watching what I was doing. I still drove just as hard. I think I just was more conscious of trying to respect my fellow racers.”

Is there a comparison to be made between the Ernie Irvan of the early 1990s and the Ross Chastain of today?

“No comparison,” Richard Petty told NBC Sports. “Ross has a little bit of finesse. Ernie didn’t. Earnhardt didn’t. Ross is the most aggressive guy out there right now, for sure. He’s aggressive without being Earnhardt. He will move you out of the way without wrecking you — most of the time, where Earnhardt would just go ahead and wreck you.”

Waltrip said Chastain’s racing moves have drawn more attention because Trackhouse has put very fast cars on the track.

“He’s aggressive, and he has fast cars,” Waltrip told NBC Sports. “You find yourself sometimes in situations you’ve never been in before. But he needs to slow down a little bit. He needs to use his skills and stop running over people. He’s an incredibly talented driver. Hopefully, he’ll control his aggressiveness and end up being a great driver. He’s a fun guy to have in the sport.”

NBC racing analyst Kyle Petty said Chastain shouldn’t change.

“I would much rather, as an owner, have an Ernie Irvan or a Ross Chastain, somebody I didn’t have to kick in the butt and move them forward,” he said. “Ross Chastain is going to go get it. That’s what (team owner) Justin Marks pays him to do.”

After the Talladega wreck that resulted in Petty’s broken leg, he said he talked to Irvan. “There were no hard feelings about anything,” he said. “I didn’t take it personally.”

Irvan said other drivers in typical race fields are as aggressive as Chastain. “He looks to me like he does a heck of a job,” Irvan said. “You could pin that (being too aggressive) on a lot of people. A lot of people do the exact same thing, but maybe it’s at a different time, or maybe it’s because it has been multiple occasions with Ross.”

Chastain has struggled with finding the middle ground between hard racing and racing that’s too hard.

“I look back at some of the moves I made, and I think I can be better in some of those instances,” he said Thursday. “It’s a work in progress. My thoughts are not about backing off or going slower of staying behind somebody. It’s how can I be better. How can I pass whatever car in a better way. … That’s the kind of never-ending evolution of my driving which I want to continue to make better.”





Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup