Column: Chastain calms down to surge into title contention

Apr 25, 2022, 2:34 AM | Updated: 2:36 pm
Ross Chastain, top, celebrates by slamming a watermelon to the ground after winning a NASCAR Cup Se...

Ross Chastain, top, celebrates by slamming a watermelon to the ground after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Skip Williams)

(AP Photo/Skip Williams)

              Ross Chastain celebrates with a burnout after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
            
              Crew members for NASCAR Cup Series driver Ross Chastain celebrate the win during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
            
              NASCAR Cup Series driver Ross Chastain (1) celebrates the win in Victory Lane following a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
            
              Ross Chastain, top, celebrates by slamming a watermelon to the ground after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Skip Williams)

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — He stood atop the winning Chevrolet at Talladega Superspeedway ready to celebrate in his own signature way. But when Ross Chastain smashed a month-old watermelon onto the track, the crowd roared as if it was an Earnhardt who had just snatched a thrilling, last-lap victory.

It was “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said the eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida.

“I want it to smash; I don’t want it to just bust open,” Chastain said. “I heard (the cheers) and I felt them. The car was shaking. Then my legs started shaking. My arms were shaking. I took a second, scanned left to right, so like from the start/finish line was in my peripheral, I scanned down to the tri-oval, people were going crazy. It was wild. Smashed it and they erupted again.

“It’s indescribable. I don’t have the words, but just the feeling they pumped into me was what you dream of. That’s what I wanted to do when I first wanted to show watermelons, if I was ever able to win a race, I wanted that feeling. I wanted that reaction.”

Rewind to 2018 and Chastain was just another struggling racecar driver desperate for a big team to give him a chance. He drove a motorhome for Spire Motorsports to the track most weeks to earn extra cash; the top drivers fly to the races, where their luxury home-at-the-track is waiting and stocked with groceries. Chastain needed a side hustle.

The CEO of DC Solar took notice of Chastain at the track one day washing the Spire motorhome and decided to back him with company money in an Xfinity Series ride for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019. Little more than a month later, the FBI accused DC Solar of being a Ponzi scheme and the deal collapsed.

Ganassi closed the Xfinity Series team, Chastain was back at square one and the DC Solar CEO was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The next few seasons were a rollercoaster for Chastain, who desperately wanted to prove he deserved a top Cup ride. He made mistakes, wrecked with teammates and won just one Xfinity race after the Ganassi deal fell apart.

Then Ganassi called again ahead of the 2021 season to fill Kyle Larson’s seat. And that was going pretty good up until Ganassi shocked the industry by selling his entire NASCAR organization to Justin Marks last June.

Now the driver was again panicked — even a little nauseous — at starting all over again.

Marks, who along with partner Pitbull has built Trackhouse Racing into a winning team in just its second season, assured Chastain that things would be fine. He signed him to drive with essentially his entire Ganassi team from last year and told him to relax.

The result is two wins in the last five races, a guaranteed spot for Chastain and Trackhouse in the playoffs and two gloriously smashed watermelons. The first one he smashed on the road course at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas a month ago.

“Ross has spent a number of years in his career fighting every lap of every race because tomorrow wasn’t given, because next week was not guaranteed,” Marks said. “I’ve seen and continue to see so much talent in him that my goal was to put him in a position where he didn’t have to do that, where he had some job security.”

“He’s now comfortable in his job and skin, understands and knows this team is being built around him,” Marks added. “He can take a breath, be more calculated, not try to get it all right now in this moment.”

That’s what won Chastain the race on Sunday.

Unlike previous superspeedway races when Chastain often made the wrong strategic moves or, worse, made outright mistakes that led to wrecked cars, he remained determined not to screw anything up. He stayed in the bottom lane behind leader Erik Jones and wasn’t going to budge.

When Jones moved up a lane in a defensive block on Larson as they exited the final turn, Chastain just kept his foot on the gas. It was nothing but clear track in front of him and Jones had his hands full holding off Larson in the top lane.

That patience and maturity earned Chastain the shocking victory. He led only the final stretch of racetrack to the finish line the entire race.

“The patience side, it’s hard,” Chastain said. “It’s so hard. Every split-second decision has to be quick, but also you have to be able to live with the consequences of it. I just thought that was my best maneuver, which I never thought that before. I made the mistake several times in Xfinity cars (when) I moved up or made a move, and (someone else) went on to win the race.”

He will have a new watermelon this Sunday at Dover in Delaware If Chastain continues to show the same maturity, Trackhouse may need to replenish its supply.

___

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Former Tennessee basketball players Alan Houston and Candace Parker walk to the court as they were ...
Associated Press

Candace Parker to sign with Las Vegas Aces

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former MVP Candace Parker announced on social media Saturday that she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. Parker spent the past two seasons playing for her hometown Sky, leading Chicago to the WNBA championship in 2021. She posted on Instagram that Chicago would always be her home, but […]
16 hours ago
Colorado Avalanche center Alex Newhook, front, is hugged by center Andrew Cogliano after scoring a ...
Associated Press

Newhook scores on birthday, Avalanche beat Blues 4-2

DENVER (AP) — Alex Newhook scored on his birthday for the second straight season, and the Colorado Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Saturday for their seventh win in eight games. Evan Rodrigues, J.T. Compher and Matt Nieto also scored for Colorado, and Logan O’Connor had two assists. Alexandar Georgiev stopped 26 shots. […]
16 hours ago
Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, right, dribbles the ball as Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic defends d...
Associated Press

Embiid scores 47 as 76ers beat Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most […]
16 hours ago
Evan Bates, left, and Madison Chock perform during the rhythm dance program at the U.S. figure skat...
Associated Press

Chock and Bates defend title, win 4th U.S. ice dance gold

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Madison Chock and Evan Bates successfully defended their ice dancing title Saturday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, scoring 137.85 in the free dance for a top-place total score of 229.75. The recently engaged couple has medaled at nationals in every season since 2013. That’s 11 straight years, which matches […]
2 days ago
Houston forward J'Wan Roberts (13) reacts after a Cincinnati shot clock violation during the second...
Associated Press

Walker, No. 3 Houston rally for a 75-69 win over Cincinnati

HOUSTON (AP) — Jarace Walker had a career-high 25 points and seven rebounds, and No. 3 Houston rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to defeat Cincinnati 75-69 on Saturday. Walker, who scored 13 points in the second half, was 10 of 14 from the field. “I was just feeling good tonight,” Walker said. “The ball […]
2 days ago
Oklahoma guard Grant Sherfield (25) brings the ball up the court during the first half of an NCAA c...
Associated Press

Sherfield scores 30 as Oklahoma beats No. 2 Alabama 93-69

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — With Oklahoma set to join the Southeastern Conference in 2025, Sooners fans used the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Alabama a dose of the energy they plan to bring to the league. After taunting the second-ranked Crimson Tide with chants of “S-E-C” and “overrated” in the second half, the fans stormed […]
2 days ago
Column: Chastain calms down to surge into title contention