Top Dog: Ross Chastain
Let’s flashback to the 2021 summer Atlanta Motor Speedway race. In the late stages, Kurt Busch was pursuing brother Kyle Busch for the lead and potential victory. At the time, both Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain were driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, which sold its NASCAR assets to Trackhouse Racing Team.
Kyle caught Chastain to put him a lap down. However, Chastain used a little teamwork to hinder the younger Busch, allowing Kurt to scoot by and eventually take the trophy. In elation and gratitude, the older Busch came over the radio and said “Shake and bake, buddy, shake and bake,” as Chastain pulled up beside him.
Fast forward to 2022.
As the series hit Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 (April 24), things were different. Kurt Busch is now with 23XI Racing while Chastain moved over to Trackhouse. In the waning stages of the race, it was Busch’s No. 45 pushing Chastain as they sat third and fourth in line. Up front, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson were seeking to hold the field at bay.
In turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, Busch was the first front-runner on the bottom to make a move, jumping to the outside of Chastain, which appeared to slow him down. However, as the fleet of cars blazed through the tri-oval, Larson pushed the cards all in and went for it. Jones slid up to block, parting the seas on the bottom for Chastain to slide through and scamper away with his second career Cup victory.
Chastain’s race was a lot like drivers’ days at Talladega: up and down like a rollercoaster. In stage one, he lost touch with the pack after serving a speeding penalty, partnering with Michael McDowell to stop the bleeding as much as possible. The field eventually caught up to them, though and McDowell moved out of the way while Chastain stayed in the middle. The move forced the leaders to split around him, mixing the front pack up. Chastain fell that lap behind but held onto the draft, eventually earning the free pass narrowly over Brad Keselowski at the end of the stage.
After scoring two stage points with a ninth-place stage two finish, Chastain found himself in the main pack in stage three. With just over 30 laps to go, Denny Hamlin carried a momentous line of cars on the outside. At the last second, it appeared Chastain hesitated, but he moved up in front of Hamlin, just barely clearing him.
Despite the bold moves, they were necessary risks that put Chastain in position to win. When Jones moved up to block Larson, it was the prime opportunity for Chastain to hold the bottom and score the victory.
“Holy cow. I’m always the one going to the top too early, making the mistake,” Chastain told FOX Sports. “There at the end it was like eight to go, I was like, I’m not going up there again. I did that a couple times today. I was like, I’ll just ride on the bottom. If it works, I’m not going to lose the race for us, I’ll just let them.
“This Moose fraternity, almost a million Moose members across the world, in the country – I know there’s some out here at Talladega. To win with the Moose onboard – they’ve been with me for a few years now, supported me everywhere I went. I have no idea. They kept going up, kept moving out of the way.”
The win is Chastain’s first on an oval in the Cup Series. It marks the second win for Trackhouse in 56 races, an incredible feat for such a young team. Another intriguing aspect is that it is the second week in a row where the third-place driver entering the final lap has won the race.
A common theme after superspeedways is one driver lamenting a decision made in the closing laps. This time, it was Erik Jones regretting his decision. After a duel with Kyle Larson for the lead in the late stages, Jones finally gained control of the race. The No. 43 paced the field for 25 laps, and an eight-year streak of Richard Petty’s famous ride being out of victory lane looked to be coming to an end. But similar to what we saw Matt DiBenedetto do in this race a year ago, Jones went for a block up high, leaving the bottom lane wide open.
Despite coming up short, Jones finished sixth, a result he needed to hang on in the playoff battle. The Byron, Mich. native now sits in 18th in the playoff standings, 12 points off the cutline. The result was his third top 10 of the year, getting him to half of his 2021 total of six such finishes.
After a dismal start to the season, McDowell has earned back-to-back top-10 results with an eighth-place finish. McDowell earned the free pass late in stage two, putting him back in contention. The No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford held steady with the main draft while also staying toward the back of it.
But McDowell saved the best for last after coming to the white flag in the 16th position. The 37-year-old then cut that in half by holding his line on the bottom the entire lap, dodging a crash coming to the checkers to earn a top-10 finish, leading all Ford drivers in the process. The result also gives McDowell his second consecutive top 10 in the spring Talladega race.
One driver that many were keeping an eye on coming into this event was Justin Haley
. All four of Haley’s Xfinity wins came at superspeedways, with two of them taking place at Talladega. As the field cycled through the final green flag pit stops, Haley found himself in \ sixth place. The No. 31 LeafFilter Chevrolet then broke into the top five with 17 laps to go. However, Haley got shuffled out and crossed the line in 12th. The result was his fourth top 15 of the season, including two in the past three races.
got a sliver of a pileup on lap 90, yet recovered to put himself in position to earn a top 10 on the final lap. LaJoie was scored in eighth coming to the line. However, as chaos ensued around him, LaJoie got turned from behind, sliding across the start/finish line completely sideways. The No. 7 Raze Energy Chevrolet ended up 14th. Normally, that would be a satisfying finish, but LaJoie was just feet away from a top 10.
With big packs come big crashes, and several underdogs got a piece of it during the race. Daniel Hemric
qualified an impressive third, which transferred over as he stayed inside the top 10 for nearly the entire time he was on track. Unfortunately, with four laps to go in stage one, the engine expired on his No. 16 Majestic Steel Chevrolet. It happened in the middle of the corner right in front of the field. Having nowhere to go, Hemric was turned by Austin Dillon
, then slid up back into traffic and got T-Boned by Chase Briscoe
The lap 90 pileup collected several underdogs, including some who were having strong runs. Ty Dillon
looked like he was matching the speed of his Petty GMS Motorsports teammate Jones. However, he was blindsided by an oncoming Joey Logano
and the hit ended his race. The accident also caused terminal damage for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
, Todd Gilliland
and Daniel Suarez
, who led 28 laps early on.
Underdogs Sound Off
Ross Chastain (first): “Justin Marks and what he laid out for us was ambitious. I had no idea, you know, what to expect other than I knew I had my group from last year, I had AdventHealth, the Moose, now with Worldwide Express and Jockey coming onboard, we’ve got partners. They’re believing in us. We started the year with a lot of races open. We’re almost full now. It’s because of the vision of Justin Marks. Pitbull, Armando, we won, yeah!”
Erik Jones (sixth): “Coming there that last lap, we were single file. I felt pretty good about it. They kind of doubled up behind us. That top lane was getting some momentum. Looking back, I wish I would have stayed at the bottom and let the No. 1 push me. I didn’t realize they were coming with that much speed.”
Michael McDowell (eighth): “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great day for us but we salvaged a good finish out of it. We really struggled with just handling today which you wouldn’t think at Talladega. But at the same time, we got ourselves in position there at the end when it counted. I thought with three to go that something was going to happen, so I repositioned myself and built a run and was able to weave through there on the last lap.
“It is just so hard to pass today. It was hard to make moves from sixth or seventh to the lead. In the front row, everybody was just kind of jammed up. It is just a different style of racing even more so here than it was at Daytona with this Next Gen car. I have a lot to study and go back and learn and figure out how to make the moves. I am proud of everyone. Coming out of here with a top 10 is a great day. I wish we could have had a shot at it but we just weren’t there at the end.”
Justin Haley (12th): “It was a good day in our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1. We stayed clean, we just didn’t execute at the end. I’m proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing for working hard and helping us to be able to stay up front and have an opportunity to contend for the win.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (30th): “I felt like our No. 47 Kroger/SunnyD Camaro was really good. I really wanted to get up and lead one of the lines. I felt like we had a car capable of pulling up and leading. I felt really fast and it drove really good. Just a bummer that we didn’t really get that opportunity.”
Daniel Suarez (31st): “I felt like we were being patient, just trying to wait for the right time to try and get aggressive and get in the right position. I don’t even know what happened. I just saw the No. 22 (Joey Logano) sideways, wrecking, in the top lane. Unfortunately, we were just in a bad position.”
Daniel Hemric (36th): “We had been flirting on temperatures the whole run. I was able to poke my nose in and out enough to cool it down. It definitely got probably 10 to 15 degrees hotter than it had been all race. I tried to make a valid effort there to get it halfway lower on the back straightaway to get clean air to the motor. I had a tone change in the engine. We didn’t lose power, so I assumed it was just myself getting my car in clean air. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, then I lost a cylinder and the engine blew up. I ran out of time to get my hand out. To slow down at such a rapid pace, the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) got into me and I was just trying to catch it from there on.”
Small Team Scheme of the Race
Can I have a large fry with that, please? In an exciting sight for many, fast-food giant Wendy’s landed as the primary sponsor for Beard Motorsports and Noah Gragson on the No. 62 Chevrolet. It included several promotions with Gragson and advertised their $5 Biggie Bag (which is awesome!). Gragson served a flavorful finish, earning a top 20 with a 20th-place run and mostly clean car.