Doug Duchardt

Ross Chastain, Chip Ganassi Racing sticking to their ‘plan’

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The last 10 weeks provided surreal sight after surreal sight as the NASCAR community and the world at large navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those odd sights came on May 5 courtesy of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch. In a video posted to Twitter, Busch showed off his racing gear as he prepped to take part in go-kart races at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina, to get ready for NASCAR’s return 12 days later at Darlington Raceway.

At one point, Busch showed two figures social distancing in the parking lot. Busch referred to them as “secret weapons.”

The one sitting on a curb was 48-year-old Matt Kenseth, recently brought in from the cold to drive the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet 17 months after his last NASCAR start.

The other was 27-year-old Ross Chastain, the CGR development driver who competes full-time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing.

Making it more surreal: Chastain was the driver many expected to get the nod to replace Kyle Larson after his firing by CGR.

Chastain is all about opportunities to race.

Last year, he competed in 77 of a possible 92 national NASCAR series races, competing full-time in the Truck Series while missing only one of 36 Cup Series races.

Before NASCAR entered its COVID-19 imposed lockdown in March, Chastain had competed in every national NASCAR series race – four Cup races, four Xfinity races and two Truck races. Over the course of those 10 races, Chastain drove vehicles for five different teams: Kaulig Racing, Niece Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sieg Racing and Roush Fenway Racing as a substitute driver for Ryan Newman (and as one of its drivers in the Pro Invitational iRacing Series).

“It’s just been when opportunities come up in the top three levels of NASCAR like, yes, yes, take them as a driver and make the best of them,” Chastain told NBC Sports.

Chastain will be back in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 (Chip Ganassi Racing prepared) car for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. But before that, he returns to his full-time job driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series, which is scheduled to end its 10-week hiatus tonight at Darlington.

But for a brief window of time last month, Chastain seemed the logical choice to take over the CGR’s No. 42, and to be in it last Sunday.

However, that wasn’t part of the plan.

Ross Chastain on the track during Xfinity practice at Phoenix Raceway in March. (Photo by Lyle Setter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Obviously, what all happened (with Larson) hit everybody really fast,” Chastain said. “I don’t know all of the details about it. But I just know that in my mind, we’re on a path. … Obviously, when Chip and (Chief Operating Officer) Doug Duchardt and (Managing Director) Max Jones and I … sat down two years ago or I guess the middle of 2018 and set out this plan, there was a lot of other factors involved like we all know and that all went away.

“All the other factors that supported me with them went away and they’ve kept me on, they’ve kept building out a plan for me and they didn’t give up whenever they very easily could have. … I just know that they haven’t given up on me and I surely haven’t given up on them.”

And you won’t hear Chastain complaining about having Kenseth as an unexpected teammate five months into the year.

“Too much of our plan was in place and obviously getting to know Matt now, he’s the right guy,” Chastain said. “He knows stuff and has been a part of stuff that I only watched as a kid on TV and he just rattles off this scenario, that scenario, this racetrack, that race car. And it’s great to be around him a little bit and learn from for sure.”

Kenseth and Busch took to the track Sunday at Darlington in the first NASCAR race in 71 days. It was also the first NASCAR race without Chastain in the field since last year’s Xfinity finale in Miami. Chastain expected to talk to Kenseth and Busch “a bit annoyingly” afterward to get feedback.

“They can just talk in such literal terms of, everything else aside, what did the track do?” said Chastain. “Doesn’t matter what kind of race car you had, if you were the leader, you were 32nd place, what did the racetrack do? What were the trends? Was it normal Darlington? What do you see? That’s where I found that Kurt is really, it’s why Matt says he’s such a good teammate so often is that he just can articulate what we all think, but we can’t put in words. … He genuinely wants to help.”

When Chastain straps into his No. 10 car at Darlington, it won’t be his first time in it since March. Last week, he and teammate Justin Haley visited Kaulig Racing’s shop on the Richard Childress Racing campus in Welcome, North Carolina, and gave their cars for the races at Darlington and Charlotte (Monday, May 25) shake down drives.

“We did the Charlotte car first and it worked fine, drove for two laps around the RCR compound and hopped over into the Darlington one,” Chastain said.

That’s when the team discovered an issue on Chastain’s car that could have resulted in a “big scare” tonight.

“We actually had a (radio) wiring harness in the Darlington car that did not work,” Chastain said. “I couldn’t hear my crew and they couldn’t hear me.”

Chastain said his team “kind of felt silly. … We all were laughing like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then as soon as that happened and we replaced the whole wiring harness … we were like, ‘Okay, it was all worth it.”

Chastain feels “confident” going into Darlington, the track where he made his debut with CGR two years ago in the Xfinity race and had a good shot at a win before an incident with Kevin Harvick. That performance helped lead to his signing with CGR later that year.

But Chastain admits “just because I had a good run there two years ago does not mean a whole lot.”

“I’ve used the end of that race as motivation for a lot of stuff and a lot of training,” he said. “Looking back at it. Yeah, obviously, you want to go replicate how the first two thirds that race went, if you can, and then clean up the end.”

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Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

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While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.

It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.

Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.

Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.

“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.

He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.

“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.

“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”

Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”

Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.

“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”

Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.

As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.

2. A big deal

After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.

“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.

“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.

“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”

Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.

“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.

“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”

Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4. 15 and counting …

Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.

The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.

So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

NBC’s Steve Letarte debuts podcast ‘Letarte on Location’

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte debuted his podcast “Letarte on Location” Tuesday.

The former Daytona 500 winning crew chief will bring you closer to all kinds of personalities that Letarte has met throughout the years traveling the NASCAR circuit.

HIs first guest is Doug Duchardt, chief operating officer for Chip Ganassi Racing. They talk about a wide range of topics at the Streamline Hotel, the birthplace of NASCAR, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Duchardt had overseen Chevrolet’s racing programs and Hendrick Motorsports before joining Chip Ganassi Racing in January 2018.

You can listen to Letarte’s podcast by clicking on the player below or via the respective links for podcasting apps:

Apple iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

Letarte’s podcast is NBC’s second NASCAR podcast. Nate Ryan hosts the NASCAR on NBC podcast. His most recent podcast was with Austin Dillon heading into last weekend’s Daytona 500.

Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast by clicking on the player below or via the links for podcasting apps:

Apple iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

‘How can we be upset?’: Ross Chastain discusses losing Ganassi ride, hopeful future

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Ross Chastain received word of the events “out west,” he knew the loss of his full-time Xfinity Series ride with Chip Ganassi Racing was “inevitable.”

The events were the Dec. 18 dual raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in California on the headquarters of DC Solar, Ganassi’s primary Xfinity sponsor, and the home of the company’s CEO, Jeff Carpoff.

Seventeen days later, Ganassi made it official. The biggest opportunity of Chastain’s NASCAR career was gone roughly two months after it had been announced because of a lack of sponsorship.

Chastain, who turned 26 in December, made his first public appearance in a month on Friday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. There, he announced plans to compete part time for Niece Motorsports in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, beginning with the season opener at Daytona.

“Early on there was a couple of dark days following everything that went down. I’m not going to shy away from it,” Chastain told reporters before later clarifying himself. “It wasn’t dark, that’s probably going to come across wrong when you write it down now that I think about that. I don’t want people to get the wrong impression, but it was a big deal.

“(The Carpoffs) did a lot for me. They changed my life. I’ll forever be thankful for them and Chip (Ganassi) and Felix (Sabates) … and everybody involved with CGR and all the people in the office, they still stand behind me. I’m still tied to them. I’m still working for them.”

Chastain said he hasn’t been in contact with the Carpoffs since the FBI raids.

“Chip and (Chief Operating Officer) Doug Duchardt, they tried everything they could to keep that deal going,” Chastain said. “Talked to Chip back and forth throughout the process … it was going to affect so many people and so many mechanics and crew guys on that, including me.

“He knew that, and it affected him. He was the ultimate loser here in Charlotte for it. Nobody wanted it to happen, man. We think we know what we could accomplish or what we were going to shoot for and the cards that were laying out on the table of what we could do in 2019, but it’s just not how it was intended to happen.”

While he won’t be driving the No. 42 for CGR in 2019, he’s still under contract with the team and said Ganassi himself calls “every now and then to make sure I’m doing OK.”

So what did Chastain do during a holiday season where his career was upended through no fault of his own?

He went home.

Chastain spent Christmas and New Years clearing his head on his family’s watermelon farm in Alva, Florida.

“Spent a lot of time at the farm on a tractor,” Chastain said. “Leaving my phone in the truck. Get on the tractor and a couple of days of that will make you appreciate the life I do get to live, and I knew I wasn’t done racing. I was just going to change my schedule for this year. Family was really good.  It kind of made us all even closer.”

The time was also spent reflecting on everything that has transpired in the last half-year.

“If you would have told me six months ago, right, that I was going to drive for Chip Ganassi, I was going to win a race (at Las Vegas), I was going to finish second in a race (at Richmond) and I was going to crash – for the win – in a race (at Darlington) with a very high-profile driver (Kevin Harvick) and he was going to say a bunch of bad things about me and I was going to come back the next race in that car and win? I would have told you you were crazy. …

“We talked through all that and realized ‘Man, what we would have given six months ago to have all this happen,'” Chastain said. “‘How can we be upset?'”

While Chastain had been silent, including on social media, since the day before the raids, other NASCAR drivers have been in touch with him. That includes Elliott Sadler, who tweeted about Chastain on Jan. 7 after talking with him.

“Elliott has probably been the biggest one through all this,” Chastain said. “I don’t get along with many drivers. Me and him connect on a lot of things. … He was just like, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible, but you’re going to get through it. You have a future,’ and that’s what he kept saying.

“He said he’s been here long enough to see it. It’s going to work out. You’ve just got to believe. I was already back on track, digging on this year when I talked to Elliott, and he sent that tweet out. His biggest thing was ‘Just believe. Know it’s going to work out. I’ve seen this before. Nobody could see this coming. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ It’s head down and dig.

“He’s been really instrumental in staying on me to make sure I’m doing that.”

When it comes to who Chastain will dig deep for in races this year, Chastain said there are restrictions Ganassi has on whom he can compete for that are still being worked out.

His deal with Niece Motorsports, who he made three starts for last year, was not a result of the Ganassi closure and had been in the works for months. He’ll share the No. 45 Chevrolet with Reid Wilson.

In addition to his truck ride, Chastain plans to compete full time in Cup with Premium Motorsports in the No. 15 Chevrolet while declaring for points in the Xfinity Series.

That way he can compete in any Xfinity and Truck races in the playoffs, when all Cup drivers are banned from competition in those series.

Chastain did not reveal who he has “handshakes galore” with in the Xfinity Series, but he plans to compete in all three points races at Daytona in February. He does anticipate racing at some point this season with JD Motorsports, the Xfinity team he raced full time for from 2015-2017 and all but three races in 2018.

“However many races we end up at, we’ll be great,” Chastain said. “I’m getting to run, getting paid to drive in NASCAR and that was my dream growing up.”

Despite having multiple opportunities to race this season, the question was raised whether last year’s feel-good story has been set back in a way that could harm his hopes of marketing himself for a top-tier ride after 2019.

“People are going to think what they want to think if it set me back or not,” Chastain said. “We’re writing our own story for how this is going to work out.”

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Chip Ganassi Racing still plans to have ‘relationship’ with Jamie McMurray

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While Jamie McMurray will be an analyst for Fox Sports starting next year, he’s still expected to have a “relationship” with Chip Ganassi Racing when he’s not taking part in his television duties.

Doug Duchardt, the Chief Operating Officer at Chip Ganassi Racing, discussed McMurray Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “SiriusXM Speedway.”

McMurray’s full-time Cup career ended this year after 16 seasons when he was replaced in the No. 1 Chevrolet by Kurt Busch. He was announced as joining Fox Sports last week.

“We’re planning on having a relationship with Jamie when he’s not working at Fox and that’s consistent with some of the things that Chip (Ganassi) has done, for instance with Dario Franchitti on our IndyCar side,” Duchardt said. “Jamie’s been an important part of the CGR family for a long time. Some of the great moments in Chip Ganasssi Racing history belong to Jamie.”

McMurray claimed five of his seven Cup wins for Ganassi, including the 2010 Daytona 500 and 2010 Brickyard 400. He also won the 24 Hours at Daytona for Ganassi’s sports car team.

“Jamie brings a lot of experience for sure from the NASCAR racing side,” Duchardt said. “But also from the sports car racing that he’s done, he’s left a foot print over with guys in the Indy shop, too, from doing the sports car races. It was interesting, when I would go to the IndyCar races and when I was at the 24 Hours of Daytona last year for my first race with Chip, is how they would speak glowingly of having Jamie around and how everyone enjoyed it when he was around. I think that’s the best thing I could say about Jamie. … When’s he’s around our team and he’s around our sponsors, he makes people feel good. He’s engaging and whatever track you’re at he makes it enjoyable.

“He can bring a lot to the team and to the sponsors to come and be at the track with us. I think that’s the best way to describe kind of how we’re looking at Jamie’s role and what he’s going to do with the team.”

Earlier this year Ganassi said he had offered McMurray the opportunity to compete in the Daytona 500 in a third Ganassi car before transitioning into a leadership role with the team. NASCAR announced last week McMurray was among the drivers eligible for the Advance Auto Parts Clash, the exhibition race held the week before the 500.

The team has not yet announced if McMurray will compete in the 500 or Clash.

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