Ross Chastain searches for line between aggressive and too aggressive

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.