Koch will be sponsored by FilterTime in select races, beginning with the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway. Koch started FilterTime after he lost his ride at Kaulig Racing following the 2017 season.
The 33-year-old driver has 213 Xfinity Series starts since 2009. He competed full-time from 2015-17, with the last two seasons coming with Kaulig Racing in the No. 11. He made the playoffs both years.
“It’s hard for me to explain how excited I am to race again and to do it for JD Motorsports,” Koch said in a press release. “I have seen the progress of this team and have raced against them for many years. Coming off their best season with Ross making the playoffs, it’s a perfect time to join them.”
“We are excited to get Blake back in a race car,” said team owner Johnny Davis in a press release. “He is another overlooked talent that needs an opportunity to race, and we’re happy to have him at our organization.”
Long: Even as playoff run ends, Ross Chastain can’t stop smiling
DOVER, Del. — Ross Chastain, whose run since Labor Day weekend included a tussle on the track with a Cup champion, a watermelon smash after his first career Xfinity win and one last desperate flurry Saturday, saw his fun-filled playoff journey end Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Chastain, who finished 13th, missed advancing to the second round of the Xfinity playoffs by three points.
“We did all we could,” car owner Johnny Davis told the team on the radio after the checkered flag waved. “It wasn’t meant to be. Keep your heads up high.”
Chastain did, sharing the same smile he had when he took Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car to a win last month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
That ride with Ganassi was a three-race fairy tale but Chastain’s main ride this season — as it has been since 2015 — is with Johnny Davis Motorsports, an underfunded team based in South Carolina that has scored 37 top-10 finishes in 1,076 career starts.
“It’s not a disappointment. We had these guys,” Chastain said, noting cars from better funded teams such as Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and JR Motorsports, “we had them nervous we were going to beat them. That’s really cool. We did outrun a few of them. We took a big step forward this weekend and this year.”
A pit road speeding penalty on Lap 167 of the 200-lap race put Chastain at the back of the field and on the offensive. He bumped Matt Tifft in the corner. The contact sent Tifft up the track and into Chase Briscoe‘s car. Briscoe hit the wall to bring out the caution.
“I was trying to pass him,” Chastain said. “It’s my job. I bring my friends with me. He runs into me after the race. It’s all good.”
Tifft wasn’t impressed.
“What an idiot,” he said on the radio after the incident.
Tifft, the last driver to advance to the next round of the playoffs, was more understanding after the race.
“He was doing what he had to do,” Tifft said of Chastain. “I happened to be the one on the receiving end.”
That Chastain was in this position was among the heartwarming stories in the series. His JD Motorsports team had put in him that spot and then Chastain’s run with Chip Ganassi Racing at Darlington and Las Vegas got him into the playoffs.
Chastain won both stages at Darlington and battled former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the final stage. After Keselowski fell back, Harvick challenged Chastain. As they raced side-by-side in the corner, Harvick’s car slid up and made contact, forcing Chastain into the wall. Chastain came down the track and spun Harvick on the straightaway, upsetting Harvick.
“Got a really inexperienced guy in a really fast car that made a really bad move and then wrecked me,” Harvick said after the incident. “Probably the reason he’ll never get to drive many of them again.”
At Richmond, he finished second in Ganassi’s car. A win would have moved him to the next round. He placed 12th at the Charlotte Roval for Davis’ team last week. Chastain entered Saturday’s race in the final transfer spot, nine points ahead of Austin Cindric.
Saturday, Cindric outscored Chastain 8-1 in stage points. That proved critical. Cindric went on to finish eighth to leapfrog Chastain in the standings.
Chastain admitted that the disappointment would hit later, but he was philosophical after the race.
“Something, I’ll never forget,” he said of his playoff run. “All of this. In my time here in NASCAR, it’s going to be over one day and seasons like this are the good ones. Seasons like last year and 2013 for me in the Trucks are terrible and you hope you never have to go through that again. Ultimately, they made me realize this season is one of the good ones.”
How Ross Chastain stopped doubting himself and embraced Cup racing
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.
The Monday before the 2017 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Chastain was excited.
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
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.
“We’re beating a handful of cars” Chastain says. “That’s promising I think.”
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.”
Chastain, 24, will mark his third straight season with the team. Smithley, 24, returns to the team for his sophomore season. The 23-year-old Rhodes returns to the team for a full season after having driven in 28 races for the organization in 2015.
“We feel like we have a great young group of drivers who will give us a three-way shot at doing well this season,” Davis said in a post on the team’s Facebook page. “We know what all of these guys can do, and all of them have run a lot of laps with us. So we won’t be starting over. It’s more like a continuation of where we’ve been headed.”
JD Motorsports is based in Gaffney, South Carolina.
Chastain, of Alva, Florida, finished 16th in the Xfinity Series last season, with a top season finish of 11th at Daytona International Speedway.
Smithley, of Peachtree City, Georgia, finished 18th last season. His top result was 12th at Talladega Superspeedway.
Rhodes, of High Point, North Carolina, had a best run of ninth at Daytona with the team in 2015.
The 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series season begins Feb. 25, with the PowerShares QQQ 300 at Daytona.
The organization announced Thursday afternoon that Chastain will embark on his third Xfinity Series season driving one of their Chevrolets while “99 percent sure” Smithley also will return. Team owner Johnny Davis said in a statement that the organization is working on funding and sponsorship for Smithley, who competed for Rookie of the Year and finished 18th in points.
Chastain finished 16th in the standings and will have Florida Watermelon Association return as a sponsor.
“Ross is a smart kid and an intelligent driver,” Davis said in a release. “We’re lucky to have him back with us next year. He brings a lot to the team, and he works with our guys really well. We’re looking to step up our program with him.”
The team’s third car is vacant as Ryan Preece has decided to move on to other opportunities. Preece also competed for Rookie of the Year honors and finished 17th in points.
Preece earned the organization’s only top-10 finish of the season with a 10th place at Darlington Raceway.
“We’re working hard every day on getting things ready for next year,” Davis said. “It’s a complicated process to get everything in line to compete at the highest levels of stock car racing. Hopefully, we’ll be set long before it’s time to head to Daytona Beach in February for the season opener.
“Our goal is to always have our teams and our drivers in a position to show the best marketability for everybody. We take a lot of pride in our cars and our sponsors and how we showcase the drivers and the companies that work with us.”