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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Ross Chastain Is Today’s NASCAR Villain — But He’s Also Its Blue-Collar Hero

Ross Chastain is a certified villain.

Just ask any of the FOX broadcast team or any of a multitude of fans. Chastain is to blame for most on-track incidents lately. He wantonly wrecks anyone and everyone in his way to get to the front.

Oh, and he’s also responsible for global warming, our crumbling infrastructure and the national debt. Also, homeless puppies and kittens.

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Up to Speed: Ross Chastain Punching Back at Critics

NASCAR and its broadcast partners are dead set on turning Chastain into the bad guy. And maybe he is. But they’re going about it all wrong.

Because the truth is, NASCAR needs a villain. 

And Chastain is exactly the kind of villain it needs.

Because Chastain isn’t the kind of driver people seem hellbent on making him. He doesn’t run over other drivers for the fun of it. He doesn’t race with the entitled attitude of, “Hey, part the waters because I’m coming through.”

In fact, he’s quite the opposite. Chastain doesn’t run roughshod on the field because he feels entitled after having everything handed to him as he came through the ranks (NASCAR has those guys, but they aren’t Chastain). He races with a hunger, the hunger that comes from not knowing where the next race is coming from. He’s the bluest of blue-collar racers, from a family of farmers, not corporate executives or NASCAR Cup Series team owners or anything that might have made his path easy.

There’s been plenty of debating over whether Chastain is more like Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip or any other driver who was once vilified. And yes, he is. He’s more like those drivers than many because they didn’t come from money either. They had to scrape and scrabble and above all, they had to win, because that was the only way the next race was anything close to guaranteed. If you race like that long enough, it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to worry about next week anymore.

Unlike Earnhardt, though, Chastain hasn’t yet cemented himself as the villain. Earnhardt made a career of rattling cages. If he put you in the wall, it was probably on purpose. Waltrip was different, too, as he was as brash with his voice as he was with his racecar. Chastain isn’t given to bragging; he’d rather speak with his car.

Chastain doesn’t set out planning to crash anyone. His approach is generally to refuse to back out and to leave the other driver either just enough room to race uncomfortably or to back out. He’s not going to give other drivers extra room. He’ll give them exactly enough so that they cannot make the tiniest mistake or slip even a couple of inches, and the nature of today’s cars on many of today’s tracks means that drivers can and do slip a couple of inches.

The Melon Man often capitalizes on those mistakes. He doesn’t go bowling for drivers, but he’ll let the pins fall around him with zero regrets.

A lot of his encounters are truly racing incidents, the kind that come from Chastain racing with everything he has. He’s not trying to rattle cages. He’s trying to get by the field, or to hold them off, with every ounce of his being. And in a game of inches, a few feathers are bound to get ruffled, even if nothing was intentional, even if it wasn’t Chastain’s fault other than being in the vicinity.

NASCAR desperately needs personalities. Kyle Busch isn’t really a villain anymore; if not a respected veteran, he’s not wearing the bad guy label so often. He used to race a little like Chastain does, only with a shade more entitlement and a hefty pinch of intent. Kevin Harvick has long since given up the black hat. Jimmie Johnson only ever wore it in the first place because he won too much. Joey Logano is aggressive and maybe the dastardliest of the lot in recent years, at least until Chastain.

NASCAR needs a villain, but it also needs a hero. Chastain could fill either role, sometimes both. Fans say they want blue-collar drivers who earned their way up by racing hard and relying on talent instead of money or connections. That’s neither Busch nor Logano. It’s neither Ty Gibbs nor Austin Dillon, even in that badass No. 3 car. It’s not Chase Elliott, who wins the Most Popular Driver award annually and sometimes looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. But it’s Chastain. 

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Does he cross a line sometimes? Sure. It’s not like other drivers haven’t, some of them equally often. But he’s here because he races hungry, he’s here because he earned it and sometimes forgets that he doesn’t have to fight for his racing life every time out anymore.

And as such, he’s the driver NASCAR needs. Billing him as the blue-collar driver that fans have missed in recent years could bring eyes to the sport. It could bring in fans tired of the same tired corporate faces. It could remind the longtime fans of better days. 

Sure, Chastain can be NASCAR’s villain. But if NASCAR promotes him the right way instead of gleefully blaming him for everything whether he causes it or not, he could also be a hero. And a driver who’s both could bring the whole sport new life.

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.

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11 Comments
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janice

chastain adds excitement to mundane racing….but…..

multiple stories about him every week? has he become the kardashian of nascar?

how about we let him do what he does, good or bad, and chalk it up to that’s racing.

Bill B

One thing is different about Chastain than those other drivers that have previously worn the villain hat. Once he gets out of the car he doesn’t really act like a bad guy. He seems to smile more than most villains. He’s rather reserved when interviewed. He will usually take the high road with little or no comment when coaxed by the media to throw cheap shots at the “other guy”. He may drive like a villain but he seems unable or unwilling to play the part which, for me personally, makes him hard to put in the same category as Busch, Harvick, Stewart, Earnhardt, Waltrip, etc.. For me it’s how they deal with it off the track and after the fact that casts them as a villain that’s why Stewart is on the list, he was a real jerk off the track.

As for Johnson and Logano, they don’t belong on the list at all.

Last edited 11 months ago by Bill B
janice

roflmao – johnson and logano…..two of the most vanilla drivers.

Kurt Smith

If you ask me about Ross Chastain and his role in NASCAR, I don’t know if I’d use the word “villain”. I would say that he’s a damned good racecar driver that is in the thick of it every week. He races very aggressively every lap and occasionally to others’ detriment, because that is the way NASCAR has laid out the rules.

It made me mad as a Larson fan to see one of my favorite drivers get taken out because of one of his boneheaded moves, but more than anything else Ross Chastain is just a great driver. He adds color to a sport that desperately needs it, his move at Martinsville was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in NASCAR, and it’s hard not to like a watermelon farmer.

Yeah, he gets into other drivers and causes them problems (he always apologizes too, and I truly believe he doesn’t do it intentionally), but he doesn’t change his style which I respect. NASCAR has laid down a championship format where aggressive racing on every lap is now a necessity. I can’t blame Ross for doing what he needs to do to win.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kurt Smith
JD in NC

Amy’s spot on with this article. I’ve liked Ross for many years because he’s not a silver spoon driver whose daddy can write a big check. He is very old school and runs every race like he is concerned he will lose his ride the next week if he doesn’t give it everything he’s got to get a good finish. Running 10/10s every lap is creating the run-ins with other drivers. He squeezed Noah at Kansas, but didn’t wreck Noah. Noah did that himself. I was mad at Ross for wrecking Poole because it took Larson out, but other than that, I’ve been fine with how he races.

kb

Well, it may not be the proverbial “Daddy” that fans like to say regarding certain drivers and forgetting who other drivers “Daddys” are. Ross DID NOT deliver newspapers, wash dishes or pick extra watermelons…he had a financial donor! As they all do! I like Ross, everybody has help…everybody!

JD in NC

I’m not saying Ross grew up destitute, sleeping in the back seat of a car. You got to have a little bit of money lying around just to race hobby stocks at the local bull ring. His family does own the watermelon farm after all. But from 21st century nascar standards, he had to claw his way to the top. He didn’t have his daddy or someone else writing checks with a bunch of zeros saying, “here put him in the car, and I’ll keep writing checks until either he gets good or he sucks so bad you put another rich kid in.” Unfortunately, the way it works is less talented silver spoon kids often get rides that more talented stainless steel (?) spoon kids lose out on. So I like to see guys like Chastain, and Josh Berry be successful.

PeterPiper

I love it. Go Ross. NASCAR is becoming more like F1 in that only those with deep pockets can play. There are many hard chargers at local tracks that could send today’s candy asp cry baby Cup drivers home in soiled diapers

KyCupFan

Great article being a Ross fan. I hope he doesn’t change anything. Keep on keepin’ on!

Ron

I wouldn’t compare Ross with Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip was a loud, mouthy self-promoter. Ross lets his driving (a bit on the aggressive side by certainly within reason) talk for him. He had no interest in getting physical with Gragson until Gradson grabbed his uniform and continued to shoot off his mouth. Chastain calmly walked away when they were separated — Gragson continued to play the role of the tough guy.

JER

Ross Chastain has fire in his gut. That’s something that is missing in this modern day NASCAR. Ross’s unpredictability is appealing. Remember last year at Martinville. Jimmy Spencer was often called “Mr. Excitement”. Now Ross Chastain is the new “#1” Mr. Excitement.

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