Ross Chastain’s first NASCAR win ‘didn’t seem real’

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CONCORD, N.C. — Ross Chastain had a lot on his mind.

It was the third weekend in March and the 25-year-old driver was hustling from one job to another.

With helmet in hand, Chastain walked from the Xfinity Series garage to the Cup garage at Auto Club Speedway. There he would climb into Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet for practice around the 2-mile oval.

He was “nervous.”

He had just left his Xfinity car and was preparing to go “200 and something MPH,” which he would be reminded of by a large digital screen displaying his speed every time he entered Turn 1.

“This is about to be real,” Chastain thought.

Chastain had no idea the next few minutes would change his life and career six months later.

Chastain wasn’t familiar with the man who called his name and approached.

“Hey, hi. How are you doing, sir?” Chastain told the stranger.

The man replied: “I’m Jeff Carpoff, I want to introduce myself.”

Carpoff is the co-founder and CEO of DC Solar, a primary sponsor of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity and Cup Series.

While Chastain was just meeting Carpoff, he was no stranger to DC Solar.

In addition to his full-time jobs of racing for JD Motorsports in Xfinity and Premium in Cup, Chastain has had an occasional side hustle over the last couple of years driving DC Solar’s motorhome to tracks, as he did in the spring at Martinsville.

“I was never a client of theirs, but I just wanted to be a part of their group, their family,” Chastain said. “Anytime they need help I’m the guy they call. … Then I can hang out with them, I really am friends with them.”

Carpoff had been keeping tabs on Chastain during his four years at JD Motorsports, a team that runs four cars but Chastain says has “enough people to run two.”

Before departing, Carpoff said, “I want you to know we’re going to try and do something for you. We don’t know what, we don’t know how. Don’t know if it’s going to work out this year, it might be down the road. But we like what you do and we really want you to be part of it. We want you to be part of our family.”

Even though he didn’t hear anything from Carpoff the next few months, the conversation remained with Chastain.

“You don’t forget a conversation like that,” he said. “With somebody like Jeff, you know he’s serious. But it went so long, what are the chances it happens this year?”

Chastain laid in bed Sunday morning having woken up before his alarm could have a say in the matter.

A realization quickly hit him.

“It was probably 20 seconds I would say before I said out loud, ‘We won. Oh my gosh. We won yesterday. That’s insane.’ I had forgot all about it,” Chastain said. “Honestly, I don’t believe that I won. It’s insane.”

The concept of being a NASCAR winner became even more surreal early Monday morning. He arrived home at 3 a.m. after flying back from Las Vegas. He promptly downloaded video of the DC Solar 300, in which he’d driven Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet. It was just his second start with the team.

“To watch it back, it didn’t seem real,” Chastain said. “I saw the car. I knew the moves I was making in the car, so to see it on TV, see the onboard (cameras) from other guys of how my car looked. I honestly (had to say), ‘That’s me. That’s me in there.’ It’s crazy.”

He watched himself lead 180 of 200 laps and fend off Justin Allgaier and the field through three restarts in the final 20 laps. The win came in his 215th NASCAR start.

“We kicked their butts,” Chastain said. “That’s really cool to say and I’m proud to say it. I’m proud to say that we went to Las Vegas, where the first time I ever went there … and start-and-parked. In 2012 (in the Camping World Truck Series race). We come back in 2018 and win the fall Xfinity race. That’s insane. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric, a fellow playoff driver, was not surprised by Chastain’s success.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to do getting in a race car of that caliber,” Hemric said Tuesday. “He’s prepped and drove stuff that wasn’t nowhere near that level. Him taking those chances to drive stuff that was lesser equipment is what gave him that opportunity. I promise you no one knows that better than he does. It’s rewarding for me, even though I was getting frustrated chasing him all race, it was so cool to see him make the most of that shot. It gives everybody hope, right?”

Chastain has one more race with Chip Ganassi Racing in Friday’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). After that, it’s back to Chastain’s usual job of racing for JD Motorsports and six races of scrapping and clawing for top-15 and top-10 finishes.

But for one afternoon, thanks to an almost passing conversation with Carpoff, Chastain was the man to beat.

“I’ve had so many (conversations like that),” Chastain said. “People genuinely are always trying to put together a program, whether it’s a third-party company or whatever. Everybody’s trying to hustle. That’s what I love about NASCAR. We all hustle. … I knew it was a chance then, but I never thought it would happen.”

Six drivers earn season-best finishes at Las Vegas

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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Racing is a zero sum game. For one driver to succeed, another must fail.

The opposite is also true. When one driver fails, it creates an opportunity for another to succeed.

Heavy attrition in the South Point 400 at Las Vegas last week opened to door for six drivers to score season-best results.

12th – Regan Smith: In his second start in relief for Kasey Kahne, Smith earned his 30th career top 15 in his 215th Cup start. This was his best finish since finishing third at Pocono in 2016 (19 races for the part-time driver).

16th – Corey LaJoie: This was the second time this season LaJoie finished on the lead lap. He also went the full distance at Michigan in June’s rain-shortened race and finished 27th.

17th – JJ Yeley: He scored another top 20 (18th) earlier in the year at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400. This was Yeley’s best finish on a non-restrictor plate track since he finished third at New Hampshire in June 2008.

18th – Landon Cassill: In 20 starts in 2018, this is Cassill’s first time to finish on the lead lap. His previous best finish this year was a 20th at Bristol in April.

26th – Kyle Weatherman: In six Cup starts, this is Weatherman’s first top-30 finish. He came close to cracking the top 30 in his last two starts, however, with 31st-place results at Pocono and New Hampshire.

28th – BJ McLeod: This is McLeod’s best career finish in 20 Cup starts. It comes on the heels of another top-30 finish the previous week at Indy (30th).

Two other drivers earned their second-best finish of 2018.

Playoff contender Aric Almirola took full advantage of problems for his championship rivals and finished sixth – moving up to ninth in the standings from 14th. His best finish this year was third at New Hampshire in July.

Coming off his first career Xfinity win, Ross Chastain finished 20th at Las Vegas. His best Cup finish of 2018 was an 18th at Texas – another race with heavy attrition.

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Rookie Truck Series driver will ‘indefinitely’ step away after 2018 season

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Justin Fontaine, citing the stress of his career on his family and lack of sponsorship, stated Monday on Twitter and Facebook that “barring a major influx of sponsorship funds, I will be indefinitely stepping away from Motorsports competition” after the Camping World Truck Series finale in Miami in November.

Fontaine, 20, has two top-10 finishes for Niece Motorsports, including a 10th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway to open the season. The rookie started 30th and finished 14th last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was his best finish since placing 14th at Chicagoland Speedway in late June. Fontaine ranks 15th in points.

Fontaine wrote Monday about the stress his career has put on himself and family members.

“Following the event at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, which I retired early due to (a) self-inflicted on-track accident, I went back to the hauler and literally broke down. My rookie season at Niece Motorsports started out strong with two top-10 finishes in the first three races – however our finishes plateaued in the weeks that followed.

“We had a string of poor results that I had only myself and inexperience to blame. Frankly, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but it became reality. My dad came up to the lounge after the Charlotte race to calm (me) down, and we had an honest conversation about my career and desires.

“My goals for nearly 10 years have been clear to me, however, the reality of making those dreams come true are much more complicated, and in many ways out of my control.

“The stress for me and more importantly my family is more than I can shoulder any longer.

“We often do not think about the impact our careers have on our families, but I was forced to see it firsthand when my mom, dad and brothers walked into my hospital room in tears after the ARCA crash in Daytona that nearly took away my ability to walk in February 2017.

“If I can help it, I do not want to see that again. That experience affected me very deeply and knowing that the lifestyle and career I love so much could bring that much emotional distress was overwhelming.”

 

Late cautions keep Martin Truex Jr. from Las Vegas victory

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LAS VEGAS — Martin Truex Jr. avoided the carnage Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but he still suffered the consequences.

With arguably the fastest car on a long run, Truex was undone by four cautions in the last 23 laps that helped Brad Keselowski score his third consecutive win. Truex finished third.

“Brad clearly found a horseshoe,” Truex said. “Three races in a row he’s won and he has not had the best car. I mean, if you want to really talk about the sport being what it is, you’ve got to look at that. I mean, obviously he hasn’t led the most laps in any of those races, and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short run speed. 

“I think clearly it’s pretty obvious how it worked out. He’s hot right now. He’s on a streak. That’s the way it goes.”

Truex leaves Las Vegas with the points lead after an afternoon that saw six of the 16 playoff drivers involved in accidents or spins and a few others who finished with crinkled and creased cars.

Truex leads Kyle Busch, who spun during the race, by two points heading into Saturday’s race at Richmond Raceway.

All the incidents toward the end were too much to overcome for Truex.

“Man, all those restarts at the end, they were wicked, they were crazy,” Truex said on pit road with a wet towel around his neck after a 3-hour, 28-minute race in temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees outside the car and much hotter inside it.

“Everybody was going for it. Unfortunately for us, it took a little bit too long to get rolling. Too many cautions at the end. It really, really took our chance away from winning.”

The issue for Truex was that he and crew chief Cole Pearn set the car up for long runs.

“Hindsight 20/20 we would have worked more on being a little better on the short run,” Truex said. “For most of day it was pretty clear who had the dominant car.

“I think we had the best handling car on the long run. You don’t know how these things are going to play out. We felt it was going to be a long-run kind of race just because the track is slick and there are so many multiple grooves. Typically, these are the ones that go green for a long time. We were kind of banking on that and for a while it was working for us. Obviously, at the end it was caution after caution. That really took any chance we had away.”

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What drivers said after Las Vegas

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Brad Keselowski — Winner: “I didn’t think it was ever gonna end. I was worried about running out of gas there at the end. I know the fans can hear on this microphone and I want to say thank you to everyone who braved 100 degree heat all day. You guys are the real heroes. I get paid to do this. You guys pay to watch and thank you for doing that. Thank you for coming out today and tolerating the heat. We’re so glad to be able to win and get in Victory Lane again with the Autotrader Ford. What a special day for 500 wins for Penske, three in a row here, first win in the Playoffs. There are too many storylines for me to get it all right, but we’re very thankful and very proud for all of them.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, the restarts a couple of them worked out for me and a couple of them didn’t. But, was happy to end up second there. Didn’t really expect to get to second there on that final restart, but it was pretty hectic. Just glad we had a good day after the tire issue we had early in the race. So, yeah, good points day.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “(The late restart) took the race from us, no question. With 15 laps or so we could take the lead and drive away. We were actually a little too good on the long run, I wish maybe we could have gone the other direction a little bit and still been able to get the lead. If we were the leader, we could do okay, I could maintain, but when I was second or third or fourth, it just made me tight enough that I had to wait for the thing to come to me or wait for other guys to start getting off the bottom in front of me. All in all it was a great day for everybody on the Bass Pro/5-hour ENERGY Camry and all the guys did a phenomenal job this weekend. Thanks to all the guys back in Denver at the shop, it’s pretty cool to see the effort going into these last 10 – we’re going to get after them. We had a winning car, just didn’t work out for us today. Really proud of the effort.”

Joey Logano — Finished 4th: “Once we lost our track position we went from first to third there and it was just hard to get it back. I thought I had a shot at it on the restart when I got to the outside of (Keselowski) but I just couldn’t clear him down into (Turn) 3. I don’t know. I wish I could re-run the race. Might be a little better. But everyone in the field is probably saying the same thing.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 5th: “We were all over the place. I was good on short runs and long runs I was really loose. We were trying to get it to where it would last. We got it a little better but definitely not where we need to be. It was a struggle. They worked really hard all day. I can’t thank them enough for that. I tried to stay out of trouble and just survive I guess. Congrats to Brad and the 2 team on their 500th win for Team Penske, that is pretty neat. We have to work on some stuff but salvaging a decent day is a good day.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 6th: “I felt like our Ford was pretty good today. We got behind on qualifying and that kind of set the tone. That was my fault. I was trying to get too much and got in the fence and made another mistake and we were able to come down on pit road and get all the damage fixed and the car was back to being good again. I am proud of that effort. That was a really hard fought sixth place. Man, one of these races we will have it go smooth and we will be a contender. I am really proud of that effort. That was a really hard fought sixth.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 7th: “There was a lot of racing going on there at the end and the restarts here were very, very hectic with three-wide and everything kind of happening off of (Turn) 2 and guys banging into one another. You get really tight off of (Turn) 2 if you’re not careful so that’s where you saw a lot of carnage happen. With 20 (laps) to go, you’re probably going to see a lot more top runners finish farther up front.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 8th: “It was tough. We didn’t have the speed today. We had a 15 to 20th place car. We have to keep working hard for the rest of the season and hopefully keep improving for our next half-mile track.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 11th: “I’m proud of our guys. They brought a really fast race car. We gave up a lot of track position throughout the day, not just from starting in the back, but on pit stops we really struggled. But, you know, proud of the effort. I felt like I got out all I could out of it. Bummer at the end. We needed a top 10. Eleventh is good, but racing my teammate to the line there I thought we would get him, but we didn’t.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 19th: “That is the most speed we have had on a 1.5-mile all year. I was running 50 percent probably maybe 60 percent that first run towards the end and just mowing guys down. Our long run speed was so good. We were too tight to restart, but our long run speed was really good. So, that is super encouraging, unfortunately we don’t have another 1.5-mile for a while, but we can turn it around at Richmond too.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 22nd: “It helps, but we could have closed with a top-five finish that would have really helped and given us a cushion. Today was really a good day for the Lowe’s team. We had good speed in the car, good pit stops, everything was going well and unfortunately, cut a right-front tire when we touched the No. 41 off of Turn 2. I don’t know how next week is going to go, I really don’t and I sure as hell don’t know how the Roval is going to go. So, sure, we finished higher than some guys, but any cushion we could have gotten today would have been nice.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 32nd: “Trying to get more than the car was capable of. We should have just finished 15th or 10th or wherever we were at the time, but trying to get more and the car won’t handle it. No grip and just a bad day overall.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 34th: “Today was one that just didn’t go our way. I fired off tight on each run, but my GEICO Camaro ZL1 would come to me the longer we would run. It’s unfortunate to have our day ruined by a blown tire because we had a lot more than what we got to show everyone. The right-side damage was pretty significant to the nose of our car, but we didn’t give up. It could have completely ended our day, but my team worked hard in the garage to get everything fixed and get me back out there. None of us wanted to quit. We still wanted to get all that we could out of this race and gain as many spots as possible. All we can do is hold our heads up and regroup to be ready for them next week in Richmond.”

Jamie McMurray — Finished 35th: “There was no smoke inside the car and the spotter said that he couldn’t see any smoke. So, typically it will run a while. But yeah, I’m assuming that the right rear tire must have rubbed a hole in it, and I don’t know why I chose to run the bottom on that lap. I wish I had stayed against the wall. But sometimes those look big but it actually didn’t hurt that bad.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 36th: “Yeah, I guess it just got caught in the wheel. But it popped really big and then I kind of got stopped and got to messing with it and it popped really big again. So, all good now and we’ll try to rebound next week. We had a really good car today and yeah, almost, just barely clipped him (Jamie McMurray). I just hate it. So many guys fell out today. I feel like half the top 16 has crashed. So, we’ve just got to finish, I guess.” – regarding a potential injury to his shoulder.

William Byron — Finished 37th: “I thought the beginning of our day went pretty good. Then in the wall the first time off (Turn) 2 and we were able to fix it after that and then pitted again, same spot, so just kind of ended our day after that.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 39th: It’s like Russian roulette every time you put these piece of crap tires on and try to drive around the race track. One time it’s tight, one time it’s loose, one time they’re blistered. We had a great car and then you put a set of tires on and you can’t even hardly make it through the field.”

ERICK JONES — Finished 40th: “It’s just unfortunate – we didn’t have the best-handling DeWalt Camry today and thought we were going to end up okay. We were going to finish top 10 no matter what. It’s unfortunate we had that happen, nothing Kevin (Harvick) could do and nothing I could do unfortunately. Not the situation we needed to be in, we didn’t have any bonus points and we’ve got some work to do now. I don’t think we have to win, but we definitely need to run really well here at Richmond and the Roval so we’ll keep at it, but it’s just unfortunate that had to happen.”