Ross Chastain has transformed into a NASCAR Cup Series star in 2022. He’s earned his first two Cup wins, posted 11 top-10 finishes in 17 races and sits second in the points behind Chase Elliott. He’s a dark-horse candidate for the championship and could even factor into the driver of the year conversation.
It’s a level of success few, if any, expected from the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Team six months ago.
But it also hasn’t won him any friends.
Instead, Chastain’s aggressive driving style keeps his enemies closer, close enough to bump them out of the way. His first win at Circuit of the Americas is a pinpoint example: a pinball-style move sent AJ Allmendinger slamming into Alex Bowman, leaving Chastain scooting away from both of them to take the win.
“At the end of the day, we all got to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Allmendinger said then. “If you’re OK with it, you’re OK with it. Each person’s different.”
Most of the time, Chastain has owned his role in these conflicts. He’s taken time to speak with drivers one-on-one and offered public apologies.
But others haven’t been quite as accommodating as Chastain’s former Kaulig Racing teammate. Martin Truex Jr. had a fiery conversation with Chastain after contact wrecked him at Dover Motor Speedway. Earlier this month at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Chastain angered Denny Hamlin to the point he impeded the No. 1 for laps at a time once an incident turned Hamlin into the wall and wounded his No. 11 Toyota.
“It’s good he takes responsibility,” Hamlin said after Gateway. “But ultimately, it ruined our day … We all have to learn the hard way, and we’ve all had it come back around on us. [And this case] will be no different.”
That buildup led to an awkward conversation between Chastain and NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman during Sunday’s (June 26) Nashville Superspeedway rain delay coverage. Passing time inside the garage, Kligerman pressed him about looking to race “with less drama.”
“When I race guys, I want it to be for the win, and I want to race them for the win,” Chastain said. “And I just need to not do it for fifth place on lap 55. Right? I need to have some better couth about it. So … I don’t know how to fix it, I just know I want this so bad. And that doesn’t mean that I just get to run into people. Like, I get that. And trying to be better has been a challenge. I just want to pass people. And when they race me a certain way, then I’m going to do something about it. And they’re going to do it to me, too.
“Like, I feel like I’m the aggressive guy, yeah. But I also get run into a lot. So it’s fine. It’s racing. I love it. And I’m getting to do it in front of the Cup field, which is just a dream come true.”
All of that seems reasonable to me, an underdog-turned-Cinderella success seeking the right fit beyond his glass slipper. Armed with the speed to win races, Chastain’s flaw is just learning exactly how to do it; right now, that means muscling people out of the way a little too much. Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, even Kyle Busch — they’re just some of the Hall of Fame-caliber drivers who fit this style.
But that wasn’t enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He fired down a question from the booth asking Chastain what he’d be willing to do inside the garage in order to have a better relationship with the drivers. What was he willing to change in order to make more friends? It’s as if his ticket to the next level needed to come with a VIP invite from the popular kids.
“That’s tough,” Chastain said in an awkward response. “How am I … well, one I don’t live the same life as a lot of them. So I don’t have a bus here in the bus lot. That’s probably domino number one. If I wanted to hang out with them on the weekends, I probably should be over there in the bus lot. But it just seems like an egregious, unnecessary expense that I don’t really care to do. So strike that one.
“Yeah. Should I try and give them a call and go out on the lake with them on Mondays? Yeah, probably. But I don’t really like the lake that much. So, probably just going to go to the shop. Get dinner with them? Yeah. I don’t know. I got my group. I’ve got my friends. It’s a pretty small circle. Yeah, after I talk with these guys, have incidents, we go to breakfast, we go to lunch. And I’m like, ‘Man, maybe I should do this more.’ But … I don’t. So, I don’t know. I’m a bit of a loner. I’ve got way more friends in the garage than I do on the grid.”
NBC’s Earnhardt and Jeff Burton then pivoted into a spirited discussion about Chastain’s style and how he needs to interact with others inside and outside the garage. It was a real strange takeaway, as if Chastain’s inability to hang out with his competitors could keep him from championship contention.
Why in the world does Chastain need to be Mr. Nice Guy in order to win Most Successful? Raw speed and superior talent is what gets you to the front on race day, not how super cool you are in the eyes of everybody else. While personality may make you a hit at dinner parties, last I checked, it doesn’t make you understand how to pick the right line on a restart.
If I had to pick the most well-liked guy not named Earnhardt the past two decades? Casey Mears. And what did being nice do for him? One quirky win in the Coca-Cola 600 with Hendrick Motorsports and … that’s about it. Chastain’s already doubled that total in a matter of weeks.
The biggest flaw in his aggression, at least in the short term, is angry drivers delivering payback in the playoffs. That’s a valid concern, but you also need to be able to catch a guy to spin him out. Trackhouse has shown more consistent speed at more racetracks this season than arguably any other organization aside from Hendrick. Chastain’s going to be a hard guy to track down.
The whole line of conversation was just bizarre for a sport that’s been dying for a dose of original personality. Jimmie Johnson was the most successful driver of the last NASCAR generation and often criticized for being its most vanilla. He’s arguably shown more of himself during a year-plus in the NTT IndyCar Series than when winning five straight stock-car championships from 2006-2010.
You see, the sponsor-driven era of NASCAR’s growth crashed with a resounding thud when the drivers started echoing what you’d hear inside a Fortune 500 boardroom conference. Those business meetings typically don’t get televised — people have different methods they use to fall asleep — so making the drivers corporate didn’t exactly work out in the long run.
Instead, race fans have been clamoring for a driver that beats to the beat of his own drummer, a modern-day Tim Richmond who goes fast, plays by his own rules and doesn’t care what people think.
So why, the second one comes along, are we trying to change him?
The only people Chastain should need to answer to are his car owner, sponsors and officials should his driving break a NASCAR rule. Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks has been supportive of his drivers, allowing them to be themselves. So I don’t know what’s wrong with a loner inside the garage who’s got as many wins this season as any of the drivers complaining about him.
It’s not even like Chastain’s walking around with a chip on his shoulder! Unlike Earnhardt or Busch, he’s taken a measured approach of, “sorry, I’ll try and do better,” even if he doesn’t the next week. Earnhardt didn’t even try to pretend to apologize during his heyday. The strategy instead was to take no prisoners, daring NASCAR or other competitors to punish him for railroading through a guy to win the race.
We should be celebrating Chastain’s emergence on the NASCAR circuit, creating rivalries within a new generation of stars. Isn’t that the type of drama that builds an audience?
“All I know is that I’ve chased this dream and this goal of competing in the Cup Series for going on 11 years, 12 years now,” he said at Nashville. “I guess it started in 2011. I had the dream of it, but didn’t expect it … I’ve got the group around me now these last few years that I want around me. I just hope and my goal is, and everything I wake up every day now to do is to continue to go fast. I don’t want to slow down.”
He also doesn’t appear to want to change.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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