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How Ross Chastain stopped doubting himself and embraced Cup racing

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Around this time last year, JD Motorsports owner Johnny Davis approached Xfinity driver Ross Chastain with a proposition to compete in his first Cup race.

Chastain did everything but jump at the chance.

Davis and two team executives for JD Motorsports told Chastain that they needed him to run the June race at Dover International Speedway for “a lot of different reasons that I really didn’t grasp at the time,” Chastain said.

Davis and his team had secured enough sponsorship money through Chastain’s connections in the watermelon industry and the Delaware Office of Highway Safety for the weekend to make it possible.

“The budget was big enough that we needed to share it and give Ross the opportunity to drive a Cup car,” Davis told NBC Sports. “When you run those races in conjunction, it just makes you a better driver each and every day you make more laps.”

Chastain, who was competing in his third full-time season in the Xfinity Series for Davis, was taken aback.

“I’m not ready,” Chastain told Davis.

Even with 83 Xfinity starts and 50 Truck Series starts prior to the Dover race weekend in June, Chastain “just didn’t think as a driver I would do a very good job in it.”

But Davis believed the Florida native “was ready” for the move.

“He needed to take that plunge and go on and do it,'” Davis says. “He’s a good kid. Some of these kids come in with a little bit of money, they drive over their head trying to prove how great they are and they crash stuff and they’re gone in a year or two. Ross don’t do that.”

Davis didn’t back down after his driver’s initial rejection. He called Chastain the next morning.

“Hey, I’m not letting this go,” Chastain recalls Davis saying. “We need you to wrap your head around this. This is what we need to do and this will help all of us.”

Finally, Chastain bought in. He was soon singing a different tune.

SNOWBALLING

Ross Chastain drives the No. 15 Chevrolet in the March Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The Monday before the 2017 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Chastain was excited.

For the last third of the season, Chastain had stuck around on Sundays for the Cup races, to watch and observe the series behind the scenes before flying home with Premium. That came after a surprising 20th-place finish at Dover in June and a 38th-place finish there in October.

Now he was locked in to drive in his third race for Premium.

“I was here at the (Premium) shop and then come Wednesday it fell through,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That was kind of tough. Not knowing when I would get another shot in it. …. Then I go through the whole offseason focusing on Xfinity. That was really all I knew I had.”

Fate might have smiled on Chastain that weekend. He overcame flu-like symptoms the day of the Xfinity race to finish 17th.

“Saturday night, it was rough,” Chastain says. “I didn’t sleep at all and woke up Sunday morning even worse. Probably could have made it Sunday, but probably a good thing I didn’t have to find out.”

Like most other drivers, Chastain had to wait until February for his next shot in a Cup car. But it wouldn’t be in the Daytona 500.

With Premium Motorsports wrapped up in Danica Patrick’s final Cup start, Chastain didn’t get a chance to talk to team owner Jay Robinson until the day after the 500, two days after he finished ninth in the Xfinity race. They soon agreed to partner again.

“He did caution me not to think it was all year,” Chastain says, later adding “It’s just snowballed in a good way.”

DOING A LOT WITH LITTLE

Ross Chastain drives JD Motorsports’ No. 4 Chevrolet at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Things have slowed down for Chastain behind the wheel, at least on Saturdays.

Chastain is five races into his current stent driving the No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium.

And those five races have had an impact on how the 25-year-old driver handles his No. 4 Chevrolet at JD Motorsports.

Through five Xfinity races this season, Chastain hasn’t finished worse than 19th. At this point last year, he had never finished better than 16th.

“When it’s all happening, I don’t feel like I’m going 180 mph, I feel like I’m going 140 or a little bit slower,” Chastain says. “It just makes it to where I can be a little more in control and feel the car a little bit better. It all sounds a little silly when you haven’t done it, I’m sure. When you’re out there, it kind of slows it down for you. Then you can just get more out of the car.”

He got a lot out of it two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway when he finished 10th. His ninth career Xfinity top 10 and fifth at a non-restrictor plate track came after some late-race drama on pit road. With Chastain running near the front, Davis decided to buy their last set of tires.

“So they got them back and got the lug nuts glued up, but they need time to dry,” Chastain says. “When they went to put the right front wheel on, all the lug nuts fell off, cause the glue wasn’t dry.”

Chastain lost spots during the green-flag stop.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault, we were running good enough,” Chastain says. “Johnny made the decision to go buy the last set of tires. It’s comical, but it’s true.”

Chastain is in a unique situation with his double-duty weekends. On Saturdays, he competes for a four-car team that has to budget for tires and buys all of its equipment “new to us” — AKA: used — but is capable of running in the top 10.

Chastain’s Cup duties take him to a two-car team that has one top-10 finish in 177 starts since 2014.

But Chastain is benefiting from resources he’s never had in his career.

“Cup cars have data, so I can compare it when I have a teammate,” Chastain says. “It’s been great to see the different throttle traces, brake traces and pressures we need to do.”

Chastain says Premium, which includes crew chiefs Todd Parrott and Pat Tryson, is the most “sophisticated” team he’s been with when it comes to putting a car together.

But “it’s simpler here than I think it would be at a quote, unquote ‘big team’ where I’ve never worked with an engineer, ever.”

Through five Cup races, Chastain’s best result is 27th at Phoenix.

He capped off the first stretch of the season by finishing 29th at Martinsville Speedway and making at least one spotter angry.

“We’re beating a handful of cars” Chastain says. “That’s promising I think.”

PRESSING FORWARD

Chastain’s impressive finish in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway left him at 13th in the point standings entering the two-week break.

It’s his best position in the standings at this point in the season since he was 12th his rookie season in 2015.

“We were trying really hard for 12th,” Chastain says.

Twelve drivers will make the playoffs, something Chastain has yet to accomplish.

In the days that followed the California race, the No. 4 team had a competition meeting.

As they discussed all the work ahead of them, mechanic Rick Johnson spoke up.

“I don’t care how much I have to work,” Chastain recalls Johnson saying. “I don’t care what parts and pieces we have, if we can’t buy another car that we think is better, if we’ve got to run the same stuff we have been in a couple of races, I don’t care, I want to make the playoffs. That is all I care about.”

Chastain says Johnson’s declaration “lit a fire under us.”

“Quit worrying about all the little stuff and let’s just go make it happen.”

Chastain knows a top-10 finish won’t be in the cards for his team every week. It will take a lot of 15th-place finishes where the team placed 18th or 19th in the past.

Chastain works hard on “trying not to be the weak link” no matter what team he’s on, and that comes down to how he manages races.

“I don’t believe that anybody can drive the fastest race car and win,” Chastain says. “I think you have to be a good driver at this level. A lot of guys say, ‘Oh no, you can put anybody in Kyle Busch‘s car and win.’ That’s not the case. I’m sorry, you have to be 100 percent all the time, every lap and be able to manage the weekend.”

While he still has a lot wrap his head around on the Cup side, Chastain believes he’s the only driver who could have produced a 10th-place finish in the No. 4 in California.

“Running the Cup car helped, it just made it to where I wasn’t the weak link, where I could get all the car had,” Chastain says. “That is one thing I do believe is that, I might not be the best race car driver, but there is not anybody that can get in that 4 car and do a better job than I do. I will stand by that. The 15 car is not exactly the same case right now. I still have a long way to go in that thing. I’m sure there’s guys that could get in there and do a better job. That’s part of learning and that was the case with the 4 car at the beginning.”

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JD Motorsports completes Xfinity driver lineup with Garrett Smithley

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Garrett Smithley will return to JD Motorsports with Gary Keller for a third season, the Xfinity Series team announced Wednesday. The 25-year-old Smithley will again drive the No. 0 car.

He completes JD Motorsports’ driver roster for 2018. Smithley’s teammates will be Ross Chastain, Vinnie Miller and Matt Mills.

“I’m so excited to be back with JD Motorsports with Gary Keller this season,” Smithley said in a statement from the team. “We’ve had two very successful seasons together and to be given the opportunity to continue to build on that is something I do not take for granted.

“Each and every year JD Motorsports with Gary Keller grows and improves. This offseason has been an extremely strong one for this organization, and I knew that if the opportunity presented itself to return, I wouldn’t pass it up. I can’t thank Johnny Davis and Gary Keller enough for the opportunities they have given me and this entire team for all that they do. We’re a family, and we’re in this together. It will be awesome to work with Ross once again, as well as Vinnie and Matt this season.”

Smithley finished 21st in the points last season. He finished a season-best eighth in the season opener last year at Daytona International Speedway.

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JD Motorsports names Vinnie Miller to drive No. 01 Chevy in 2018 Xfinity Series

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JD Motorsports with Gary Keller announced Tuesday that former NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver Vinnie Miller will drive the team’s No. 01 Chevrolet Camaro full-time in the 2018 Xfinity Series.

Miller, 20, is a native of Ortonville, Michigan, and began his racing career on local short tracks before moving up to both the K&N Series and ARCA Racing Series.

Miller made his Xfinity Series debut for JD Motorsports Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway, finishing 29th. He also made his Truck Series debut at Talladega on Oct. 14, finishing seventh for the Gaffney, South Carolina-based team.

Ross Chastain, JD Motorsports agree on contract extension

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Ross Chastain on Friday announced that he will return for a fourth straight year with J.D. Motorsports with Gary Keller in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2018.

Chastain drives JDM’s No. 4 Chevrolet.

“Three years ago, I got a call from Johnny (owner Johnny Davis) and we started building this empire together,” Chastain said in a press conference Friday at Dover International Speedway. “We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot more to accomplish together, and that’s why I’m so happy to be back in the No. 4 car.”

Saturday’s race at Dover will be Chastain’s 94th in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports. He has one top-5 (fourth place this season at Iowa) and seven top-10 finishes in his career with the team.

Chastain finished 15th in the Xfinity Series with JDM in 2015, was 16th last season and is currently 15th this season.

He also made 52 career starts in the Camping World Truck Series, with five top fives, 14 top 10s and two poles.

“I started watching (Chastain) when he was driving in Truck races,” majority team owner Johnny Davis said. “He’s helped JD Motorsports with Gary Keller grow to another level, and with a number of good years together, we’ll continue to grow.”

Chastain, his father and brother own a watermelon farm in Alva, Florida. “We’re known for the watermelon car,” Chastain said.

Other drivers on the JDM team are Harrison Rhodes in the No. 01 and Garrett Smithley in the No. 0.

Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Harrison Rhodes

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The origins of Harrison Rhodes‘ NASCAR career can be traced to two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, one of them ridden by former Cup champion Bobby Labonte.

“I actually started racing kind of because my dad (Gene Rhodes) was friends with Bobby Labonte and they used to drive Harley-Davidsons with each other back in the day and I went to school with his son, Tyler,” Rhodes told NBC Sports. “Tyler was racing quarter midgets at the time. It was kind of one of those deals where I went and watched Tyler down in Florida one time and man, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So long story short, Bobby let me drive Tyler’s quarter midget there at their little shop they had and we ended up getting in a car at our first race in Columbus, Ohio, at an indoor track.”

Harrison Rhodes competes in the Xfinity race at Charlotte last May. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

After getting his start at 10, Rhodes is now 24 and one of three drivers for JD Motorsports, driving the No. 01 Chevrolet in his fifth year of Xfinity competition.

During the last few years Rhodes has also been busy working away at a back-up plan, just in case racing doesn’t work out. He graduated in December from North Carolina State University with a major in business entrepreneurship and a minor in graphic communications.

“I graduated, and now I’m trying to make the race car thing work as long as I can,” Rhodes said. “Trying to get out here and keep trying to find sponsors and keep running well. You can’t do one or the other, you’ve got to do both pretty well in this sport to keep progressing forward.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: You have 73 Xfinity starts, do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?

Rhodes: I don’t know. I don’t guess you never feel like you’ve made it. I definitely don’t take what I have for granted, but on the other hand my goal is not to be trying to get a top 20 every week, you know? Eventually I want to go out there and be competitive, trying to win races. I think I’ve made it to the point to where I’m racing in NASCAR, that’s a huge milestone. How many people can say they’re racing in NASCAR? To kind of put it in perspective, my first race ever when I ran at Phoenix (in 2013), Mike Wallace came up to me and I hadn’t qualified very well and I was a little bit down with it being my first start, was wanting to impress some people. He came up to me and he told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, go out here and run a clean race and just remember you’re one of 40 people that are getting to do this today.’

He kind of put it into perspective just how fortunate I am to be where I’m at. I’m getting to do what I love for a living at the current moment. But obviously my goal is to keep working forward and to eventually be in a car that can win races. I think it would be cool to get a victory for (owner) Johnny (Davis) in one of his cars. I think we might have a chance at a superspeedway or something like that. We’re just going to keep working hard.

NBC Sports: Which was a bigger deal for you, getting a top 10 at Daytona (twice) or graduating college from N.C. State?

Rhodes: I don’t know. There wasn’t no luck in graduating college, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of time and effort put into that, a lot of studying, long hours and a lot of trips to Raleigh. Whereas, at Daytona I had a decent car I guess. As far as raw speed I think we were 36th quick, so it’s not like I had a blazing fast car for that race, got the right breaks. I think I’ve become a decent speedway racer. Being able to read different situations, learn to draft a little bit better and be smart. Obviously, I don’t have it all figured out, but I definitely think I’m getting the hang of it a little bit. That was a cool race, we were able to get some breaks, missed a bunch of wrecks. Man, I missed a bunch of wrecks. I got lucky as far as that goes. It’s always good to have a good showing at Daytona.

Harrison Rhodes pits during the Firecracker 250 in July at Daytona (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

NBC Sports: Why did you choose business entrepreneurship as a major and graphic communications as a minor?

Rhodes: I was actually going to do engineering at N.C. State. I got kind of into the deeper classes with the math and the physics and all that stuff and just realized there was no way I was going to be able to do that and race. I had to miss a lot of class to race on the weekends. So I was like, ‘this is not going to work. This is going to be a one or the other thing.’ So racing took the priority on that. But I’ve always had ideas of maybe starting my own business someday or doing some small stuff. Obviously, my dad owns his own business (two Chik-fil-A stores in High Point, North Carolina) and a lot of my family does as well. It’s always been something that’s been instilled in me, and I have a lot of experience from watching my family run businesses.

It was kind of the next best thing. I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s helped me a lot as far as being in these sponsorship meetings and going to these big corporate companies and knowing what I’m talking about and pitching new ideas and new ways of doing things. Then on the graphics side I do all of my own social media art work and I design my hero cards and do all that stuff. I’ve always liked doing the graphics stuff on my computer and tinkering around. It was cool to get that minor. It’s really transferred to what I do every day.

NBC Sports: You’ll be in Bristol this weekend. If you were in the Cup race, what would be your intro song?

Rhodes: It’s kind of funny, I probably listen to every single style of music except for screamo and stuff like that. I’m not a big fan of that. Probably some cool rock song. Maybe like Metallica or something. Something to get me pumped up, get the fans pumped up. “Enter Sandman” or something. There was always a pitcher for the (New York) Yankees that always had that song coming out (Mariano Rivera). I remember seeing him one time come out to that song and I thought it was the coolest thing.

 

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Rhodes: Technically my first car that I owned is the car I drive now, a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS. But the first car I drove when I was 16, that was my dad’s car at the time, a Mini Cooper. A Clubman Mini Cooper. So like a supercharged Mini Cooper. That’s probably the first thing I drove around. … It was a pretty cool car. It was pretty fast for what it was and it drove really good. It was pretty sporty looking. I got tired of people telling me my car was ‘cute.’ So I was like, ‘you know what? I’m over it.’ We traded it in for a truck and I drove it for a while and then we got the Camaro.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a street car or race car?

Rhodes: My Camaro I have, it’s blacked out. So I named it the ‘Black Knight.’

NBC Sports: If you have an obligation-free day, how do you spend it?

Rhodes: If I had nothing to do and just a day to kill, I’m probably going to the lake to hang out there riding my jet ski some or something. Just go surfing.

NBC Sports: When it comes to the surfing and wake boarding stuff what’s the worst wipeout you’ve had?

Rhodes: Oh man, I’ve had some. I don’t do it anymore really as much. I used to wake board quite a bit. I got to the point where I was trying some 360s and some back flips and some cool stuff like that. I got to the point, dude, I face planted so hard a couple of times. I was like, ‘you know what? This. Is. Stupid.’ I’ve taken harder hits on a wake board hitting the water than I have in a race car. I’ve had concussions from it about five, six years go. I was like, ‘This hurts. I’m done with this. I’m going to stick to the surfing where you go 10 mph and it doesn’t hurt when you fall.’ When you’re going 23 mph straight and then you’re also cutting across the waves, so it’s a combined 40-something mph and you literally go face-first in the water and don’t stop and go 45 to zero, it hurts.

NBC Sports: What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make in your career?

Rhodes: Sometimes choosing a team is a difficult situation. Probably the most difficult decision I ever made was after the 2015 season, leaving JD Motorsports to go race for (Obaika Racing). That was a really hard decision. If I could redo it again I would not have made that same decision. I would have stayed with JD Motorsports, but hindsight is 20-20, so you live and you learn. I’m very fortunate Johnny has allowed me to come back and race for him. That was probably the most difficult/stupid decision I’ve ever made in racing.

NBC Sports: Why did you make that decision?

Rhodes: At the time, the team I was going to race for in 2016 made a lot of promises and made it sound like they were really going all out for that season and have really great equipment and it was going to be this big thing and then none of it ended up happening. It was kind of one of those deals where we decided part ways and I started racing for Rick Ware and Carl Long throughout the season afterwards.

NBC Sports: What’s the best criticism/advice you’ve received about your career to this point?

Rhodes: That’s a difficult one, because as far as driving goes you don’t necessarily get a ton of driving advice at this level. You’ll sometimes get things from here or there from drivers that if you need something you can ask. I can’t really think of the best advice I’ve gotten. I think the best advice I could give somebody is to get really good at marketing and to really get out there early and meet a lot of people and try to get a good sponsor behind you. Because really, you can see on social media it’s no secret that to be in a car that’s capable of winning you’re going to have to bring $6 million in this series. It doesn’t necessarily matter how great you are of a race car driver, that you got to have the money behind you. I think that’s the thing. It’s a little difficult to swallow at times because you feel you’re better than other people that may be in a ride. But it’s so demanded by money. I’d say that would be my biggest piece of advice to get somebody really good at marketing. The advice I give to myself all the time is to not give up on it. You get a lot ‘no’s’ and you can get discouraged at times, but to just get back on the horse, go out there and don’t let it get you down. If you want to be in a car, you have to work hard and find the money to do it.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

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