Ross Chastain has had himself a week. In a season where we’ve already seen first-time winners in Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe as well as a string of winners under the age of 30 that dates back to October 2021, the 29-year-old Chastain fought hard with A.J. Allmendinger and Alex Bowman to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas and the first win for Trackhouse Racing.
Chastain came into Trackhouse as a result of team owners Justin Marks and Pitbull buying Chip Ganassi Racing last year and merging the two teams. It was known that Daniel Suárez would take up one of the cars and stay in the #99 but things were a bit unknown as to whether or not it would be Chastain, Kurt Busch, or someone else taking over the #1 in 2022.
Nearly a month after the team announcement, Marks announced that Chastain would remain with the new organization and move to #1. That has paid off tremendously. The first two races in the season were a bit rough but after Fontana, Chastain has had finishes of third, second, second, and first and has moved up from last place in points up to fifth, along with leading the second-most laps after six races in the 2022 season.
Chastain talked with The Comeback over the phone about his win over the weekend as well as racing for Trackhouse, driving the Next Gen car, and being a watermelon farmer.
— Pitbull (@pitbull) March 28, 2022
Phillip Bupp: How’s the week been so far for you?
Ross Chastain: Oh, awesome, man. Busy, trying to talk to everybody and talk about it and enjoy the moment and hear people’s stories of where they were at whenever the race unfolded and got over. That’s been, probably the coolest part.
PB: Has Pitbull reached out to you?
Chastain: He talked to Justin. Yeah. He was super pumped and, wants more, right? Loves the feeling, loves the moment and he wished he was there.
PB: I saw he retweeted the announcement and all that. How was that Twitter explosion with all his fans?
Chastain: That’s the whole goal of it, right, is to bring in his fans to NASCAR. He felt before he ever got into the sport, that he had a big car following and a big following that would enjoy this sport after he got immersed in it a few years ago and it’s paying off. He was right.
PB: How massive is it for a team like Trackhouse to not only get a win this early in the season but this early in the formation as a team?
Chastain: It’s indescribable. I don’t know how you put into words or how I do, because I don’t have the words. To look back and think through the conversations I had with Justin and Ty [Norris], going into this year and what this acquisition of CGR was going to mean and Chevrolet and all the goals we had. To say, if you could have told me when I signed my contract to drive here, that race six, we were going to win, I don’t know how I would’ve believed it. But that’s why we do it, right? It’s for the dream of winning.
PB: Oh yeah. What have been some of the differences between racing for Chip Ganassi and racing for Trackhouse?
Chastain: The biggest thing is the new car. We just had to totally restructure this entire shop. We’re in the same building, but the workflow’s totally different. We’re not cutting, grinding, welding, manufacturing cars. We’re buying and assembling cars. You don’t have that smell of cut metal and welding gas and sparks aren’t flying, we’re not grinding, we’re not just wheeling stuff. We’re trimming to fit, but that’s it, just small little pieces and just making these vendor parts fit together, how they’re supposed to. It’s totally different, just because of the car.
PB: It would’ve been different regardless, but, with new owners and the new team coming, that just adds more to it, I guess.
Chastain: Oh, absolutely. It starts at the top, man. That’s what I’ve asked our guys, the real workers of this team on the shop floor like, “What do you think?” This has been probably two weeks ago and they’re like, “Look, it starts at the top and if Justin isn’t truly telling us how he feels, we never know.” Because he lives in Nashville so if he just, is quiet and comes in and says, “Hey, good job. Good work,” and leaves, you’ll never truly know what the guy is thinking. He is not that way. He’s here. He is hands-on. He’s very vocal with his thoughts and his ambitions for this team. That’s where it starts is at the top.
PB: It feels you’re all getting the hang of the Next Gen car, Daytona and Fontana were what it was, but you’ve had finishes of third, second, second, and first in the last four races. What’s been the thing that’s clicking for you guys that you’re knocking out of the park every week?
Chastain: I don’t know [laughter]. These Gen-7 cars are so wild. They’re very volatile to drive. You’re going to get loose, and then you’re probably going to overcorrect. It’s very common right now, so, living within my means behind the wheel, not putting it on the limit, has been key to not do what I did at California two times, again. And just kind of letting the race come to us. I’m not the fastest in practice. I don’t qualify the best, but once we get rolling in the race, we slowly but surely make our way forward. We just got raw speed in the car and I haven’t found a way to really hustle it except at the road course, I was able to hustle it in the race, but all the other ovals, I kind of got to almost drive it 90%.
PB: Have you found that the Next Gen car is tailored more to your driving style compared to the Gen-6?
Chastain: I don’t. No, I know we’re running good, but I don’t think one way or the other, I could really answer that because, every lap on an oval, this Gen-7 car is on edge. There’s never a lap that I ran this year that I’m not trying to stay straight, not spin out. Even when I’m tight, a little bump here and there and I’m catching the car. But especially with the 550 [HP] package, we didn’t have that as much.
PB: Now you have a very personable origin story. Your family is watermelon farmers and you’re a farmer yourself and you’ve really clawed your way through the sport, maybe driving cars that weren’t as competitive to get to where you are right now. What has been your motivation to power through? Because I imagine this all hasn’t been easy for you.
Chastain: Well, it beats a real job [laughter]. This is a dream, man. If I wasn’t racing in NASCAR and I was working at the farm, I’d probably still be racing at my local short track and spending money to do this versus paying my bills this way. Pretty darn cool still to get to do this and it’s not lost on me. Motivation is I don’t want to lose this because it’s awesome.
PB: I’m sure there are some similarities and differences between the two. Has one job helped you do a better job in the other and vice versa?
Chastain: Yeah. I’d like to think that my upbringing and the Chastain work ethic of farming. There’s so much out of your control with the weather and just so many variables in agriculture that racing seems pretty calm in a lot of ways for me. Besides getting a blown tire, running over something, or just weird things happening outside of the driving side of my control, but behind the wheel, a lot of times… Well, every time I’ve ever crashed, there’s something I could have done to change it and not crash that lap. In ag, it’s just not the case.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 27, 2022
PB: Your trademark celebration is smashing a watermelon on the track after a win. I get where the watermelon came from, but what brought about smashing one?
Chastain: That was just by kind of accident. The first national series race I won in 2018, the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas. I carried one to victory lane, lifted it up and sat it down, and took it to the media center. Somebody asked me what I was going to do with it. I just said, “I don’t know, probably just bust it open and eat it.” They asked if they could film it. I said, “Sure, that’s kind of weird, but okay.” They’re like, “Where are you going to do it at? We want to film it.”
I said, “Well, let’s do it at the front stretch.” We went and did it and had our little mini viral moment there. It was kind of like, “Well, that was awesome. Let’s do that every time.” We’ve been doing it ever since.
PB: Nice. I know when it comes to sponsors, doing well typically brings more promotion to the sponsor. Has that been the case with the watermelon business when you’re doing well and people are seeing watermelons being smashed on national TV?
Chastain: It’s hard to say right now. It’ll take a while to get feedback from the industry, from chain stores to distributors and sales groups in watermelons. But I know in 2019 it did, we went on that run with Niece Motorsports and made a run at the championship and won four races. Indeed, there was an uptick in watermelon sales that year over the previous couple. It’s hard to say, you’re getting the numbers and you’re making your educated guess, but I feel like I played a part in that.
I think it’s only going to be better with the Cup Series, I hope, and that’s the whole goal of it. This racing gives me a platform to talk about ag and tell people about the small amount of our population in this world that is in charge of feeding the world. And although watermelons aren’t an everyday staple food item that you have to eat, we feel we’re a small part in giving people a healthy alternative to a lot of things in a small part of feeding this world. Agriculture and farmers around the world are here to help. They’re here to feed you not to hurt you. There’s a lot of negativity around ag a lot of times, and there’s a lot of misinformation and we’re proud of what we do and proud to help feed people.
PB: That’s great. It’s definitely an important industry and it’s a very hard-working industry. I can’t say I’ve done it, but hats off to you all.
Chastain: Yes, sir. Thank you.
PB: Just wrapping up, what are some of your goals for the rest of the season? Are there some places you feel confident that you can get some more wins?
Chastain: I can tell you that it wasn’t COTA, I’ll say, the sky’s the limit, man. I have no idea. Phil Surgen and this #1 Trackhouse team, and the #99. Week in and week out, it’s one of us or both of us, having a shot to win. I honestly think the 99 might have been faster than us [at COTA], we never got to really race. I know in Saturday practice and qualifying, they were definitely faster and we never got that chance in the race. Our pit strategy was flip-flopped, and then they got that flat tire and lost power steering.
Wish I could’ve raced it out with Daniel, for sure. Honestly, we’ve been fast at all kinds of tracks.