AVONDALE, Ariz. — That Ross Chastain even has a chance to be a Cup champion Sunday at Phoenix Raceway is, perhaps, more remarkable than if he wins the title.
Instead, Chastain relied on lessons from his family of watermelon farmers to climb from underfunded rides to the top of NASCAR’s premier series.
When Chastain shifted into fifth gear, drove his car into the wall and rocketed around Martinsville Speedway’s final two corners last weekend in a desperate bid to make the title race, he was merely following the edict of farm life. And the name of his family’s watermelon operation in Florida: JDI Farms. The JDI stands for Just Do It.
“The thing is, you just do it no matter what the job is,” Ross Chastain’s brother, Chad, told NBC Sports about the family’s motto and business name. “You just do it.
“One of our big things here in Florida is we’ll get these pop-up showers and it will dump two or three inches of rain on you an hour. You have to get that off (the fields) right away. So you don’t have time to freak out or panic and worry about it. You just have to go and do your job and get the water pumped out of the field, so you don’t lose your crop.
“I think growing up, doing that, being up with our dad at midnight when it’s pouring and we’re running around on tractors and we’re calling each other on the phone … it’s something that definitely prepared us for the pressure of racing and life in general.”
There was no grand plan for Ross Chastain’s racing career. After success in the short track ranks, Chastain looked to move up to NASCAR. A deal was put together for him to run a Truck race in 2011 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
“That was it,” he said of the one-race effort. “That was the plan.”
Chastain finished 10th. It led to a few more rides that season and a full-time effort in 2012 in that series. He moved to Brad Keselowski Racing’s team in the Truck series in 2013 and ran 14 of 22 races. The following season proved more challenging. Chastain ran only three Truck races and seven Xfinity races.
But it was his performance in the Truck season finale that caught the attention of Xfinity Series owner Johnny Davis. Chastain started third and finished 11th.
Davis was looking for a driver for the 2015 Xfinity season, but there was a catch. The ride would be a start-and-park effort, meaning Chastain would not get to run many laps before pulling the car into the garage because of lack of funding.
Davis let Chastain to race in the 2015 season opener at Daytona since speedway racing provides more teams a chance for a good result. Chastain finished ninth.
“We had a legitimate shot to win the race,” Davis told NBC Sports. “I said, I can’t start-and-park the kid like this. This kid’s got talent. We need to help him showcase it.”
Chastain did not start-and-park any race that season. Daytona was the first of 142 races over five seasons with Davis. Chastain scored 13 top-10 finishes in that span. It’s not an impressive record but the team was more of a mid-pack operation and the focus was on not wrecking cars. Still, Chastain showed skill. He also showed a level of determination.
What he didn’t show at a key moment was confidence.
In 2017, a sponsor came to Davis with some extra money for a race and he decided to channel it into a Cup ride for Chastain with team owner Jay Robinson. The catch was the race was at Dover, not the easiest track for drivers, let alone someone without Cup experience.
“I went to Ross and said this is what we’re going to do,” David said.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to get in a Cup car,” Chastain told him.
“Boy, you’ve been ready to get into a Cup car,” Davis said. “I’m not asking. I’m forcing you.”
Chastain recalls that moment vividly.
“I just never thought I was ready for Cup,” he said. “I’m glad that they were stern with it. Because if they would have given me my choice, I wouldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have gone to Dover for my first Cup race. No way.”
“It’s scary,” Chastain said. “It is. It’s Cup racing. It’s hard. You see the guys that do it. Put them on the highest pedestal that I have.
“I just (didn’t) view myself as ready for that. That’s me. I don’t really know how to answer your question other than that was my thoughts and I still don’t believe that I was ready until I actually got in the race. Practice and qualifying, I wasn’t ready. I got in the race, it all clicked.”
Chastain finished 20th.
His journey was just getting underway.
In 2019, Chastain completed a weekend trip that included a Greyhound bus in his commute from one track to another.
He drove his camper from Pocono to Watkins Glen for the next Xfinity race. But he had a midweek Truck race at Eldora Speedway. He decided against flying because of cost of a commercial plane ticket and took a Greyhound bus from upper New York to Columbus, Ohio.
His father picked him up at the bus station. After the Truck race, they piled into a van and drove back while Chastain slept. The van had a flat a few miles from Watkins Glen, but Chastain made it to the track on time.
Chastain’s break came in 2018 when he got to run three races for Chip Ganassi’s Xfinity team. Chastain won at Las Vegas in his second start with the team.
He was set with a full-time ride for Ganassi’s Xfinity team in 2019, but that changed a few days before Christmas. The FBI raided DC Solar’s headquarters and the CEO’s home. The company was to have sponsored Chastain in 2019.
Without a sponsor, Ganassi shut the team down on Jan. 4, 2019. Chastain was suddenly without a ride.
“From the night I found out the raid happened, which was a day and a half later to Jan. 2, in my head I was done racing in NASCAR,” Chastain said. “Jan. 2, I decided to try it again.”
What did he mean he was done with racing?
“In my head, once that (ride) was gone, I just never thought I’d have another opportunity like that and I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run scuffed tires (for underfunded teams),” he said. “Ultimately, I decided to go back and run scuffed tires.”
It led back to Ganassi but to the organization’s Cup team in 2021. When Justin Marks bought Ganassi’s Cup operation that season, he kept Chastain.
In their first year together, Chastain and Trackhouse will vie for a Cup title Sunday (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
“This is wild,” Chastain said.
Just like his ride to this moment.