If you watched, slightly slack-jawed, as it dawned on you what Ross Chastain had just done — for a fourth-place finish, mind you, because he had no chance at the win — because it took a moment to believe it was real, you’re not alone.
That Chastain even thought of that move, riding the wall through turns 3 and 4 at tiny, tight Martinsville Speedway as the engine screamed, let alone executed it, tells you all you need to know about how badly Chastain wants to succeed at NASCAR’s top level.
Chastain’s final lap was the fastest lap ever run in a stock car at Martinsville. It was the stuff of legends. And it was run out of pure desperation.
Chastain, whose family has been farmers for generations, was, in that moment, racing for his life.
The fans at the track loved it.
In contrast, the end of Saturday’s (Oct. 29) NASCAR Xfinity Series race was the perfect example of a driver who’s never known the hunger that Chastain displayed.
Ty Gibbs was racing for the win, and with that series championship race also on the line, the late laps featured plenty of contact. The bump-and-run was on full display. Before the final caution, Brandon Jones had used the move to pass Gibbs.
Jones, Gibbs’ teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, needed a win to advance to the title race. Gibbs was already locked in when the pair lined up on the front row for the final restart. Jones jumped into the race lead. But Gibbs, apparently upset at Jones for making contact with him, slammed into Jones’ bumper, sending him into the wall as Gibbs drove by for the win.
The fans at the track hated it. Boos and chants rained down on the young driver as he exited the car.
It wasn’t a move made by a driver who needed a win to keep his ride. He didn’t need it to keep his season alive. It was a move made by a driver who feels entitled to the win.
Gibbs has never raced a backmarker car just to race. He’s never wondered where his next ride would come from or if he’d ever have a chance to race at the highest level. He won on Saturday, but he’s never known what it’s like to really lose.
That makes him dangerous in the title hunt right now, but does it hint at something more?
Chastain hasn’t had a competitive enough Cup Series ride for long enough to know what his future holds, whether he’ll be remembered as a great driver (he’s already a good one), but his blue-collar background is an asset that’s hard to overlook.
Consider the greatest drivers in NASCAR, both recent and past, and a whole lot of them have one thing in common: a blue-collar background.
While his family did build a racing empire, Richard Petty — and his father Lee before him — didn’t enter the sport with money to burn. They raced to win in part because the winner’s check was the biggest and they needed that money to make the next race.
A young Dale Earnhardt worked in a factory during the week to try to race on weekends, and when he got to the Cup level, it wasn’t because he brought money to his team. Earnhardt’s aggression was borne of not knowing where his next ride — sometimes even his next meal — was coming from.
When Jimmie Johnson was a young teen, he wanted to move up from racing dirt bikes, but his family didn’t have the money to build racecars. Johnson learned how to approach sponsors and secure backing because there was no other way, but even after winning a Cup title, there was fear in the back of his mind that if he wasn’t good enough, those backers would move on.
And the list goes on: Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Brad Keselowski, and so many more … for these young drivers, doing what it took to win was as much a survival tactic as a point of pride because it was the only way to secure the next race.
Drivers like Gibbs — who has plenty of talent, by the way — can race aggressively because they want to, because they can, because they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to get to the next race, or if there will be a next race at all.
Aggression on track often has the same result no matter who’s involved and why, but sometimes, it’s not hard at all to see a difference. Wanting to win isn’t quite the same as being afraid to lose.
There are perhaps fewer true blue-collar racers in NASCAR’s top levels today than a few decades ago. While the vast majority at that level have earned their rides, it’s come much easier for some than others.
A Chastain title would bring NASCAR the All-American storyline the sport needs: eighth-generation farmer turned racer works his way up, only to have his dreams dashed. Running for an underfunded team, Chastain is tapped for a ride that nobody really expects much from, certainly not a title run in the team’s second year of existence against two former champions and the sport’s biggest teams.
Yet here they are. Chastain’s path may not have been smooth, but he has a hunger that the others haven’t known. He races for his life because that’s what he’s always had to do. History shows that that might be the edge he needs.
NASCAR began as a blue-collar sport with blue-collar fans cheering for blue-collar drivers. The best have never really broken that mold. They might retire as millionaires, but they didn’t start that way. They started hungry and desperate and learned to channel that on the track. They raced for survival and won because they had to. They knew the feeling of no next week.
And as of Sunday, for 2022, there’s no next week.
Chastain might not walk away with the title. But everyone will know he was there. He doesn’t have to race like his life depends on it any more … but he probably will. The best ones always have.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.