One lap. That’s all it took for Ross Chastain to drop a watermelon and raise a trophy in celebration. The 29-year old Floridian led only the last – typically frantic – lap in the GEICO 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Sunday to take his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
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Chastain was running third behind Erik Jones and Kyle Larson with one lap remaining. Larson pulled out of line to the outside, poised to make a pass for the lead. Jones pulled in front of Larson to block the momentum while Chastain kept his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet steady below them, maintaining pace and ultimately pulling away to the win as the other two cars lost momentum battling each other.
“Holy cow, we didn’t do anything,’’ Chastain yelled on his team radio after taking the checkered flag by a mere 0.105s. “We just stayed down there.’’
And it worked.
“I’m always the one going to the top too early and making the mistake and there at the end, with like eight to go, I was like, “I’m not going up there again; I did that a couple times today,” said Chastain, who earned his first career series victory at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas on March 27.
“I was like, ‘I’ll just drive the bottom; I’m not going to lose the race for us.’ They just kept going up and moving out of the way.”
Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon crossed the line in second, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch while the Hendrick Motorsports driver Larson was able to finish fourth for his first top-5 finish in a restrictor plate race in 31 tries.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. was fifth followed by Jones, who came less than one lap away from giving Petty GMS Motorsports and team owner Richard Petty their first win since 2014.
“Just the last lap — it’s typical here,’’ said a disappointed Jones, who finished sixth. “I’ve been close here so many times, in this race and the fall race.
“Looking back,’’ he continued, “I wish I’d stayed in the bottom but didn’t realize they were coming with that much speed. [I] tried to defend the No. 5 [Larson], but was too far ahead already and obviously it opened the door for the No. 1 [Chastain].
He did take solace in the showing, though.
“[I’m] happy to run up front and lead laps. [I] just would really love to get that No. 43 to victory lane and thought today might be the day,’’ he said. “We were fast all day long; had speed and especially being out front there at the end I know we had a shot — just couldn’t quite close it out.’’
Larson was equally as disappointed hoping to turn his best race performance at Talladega into a trophy.
“I felt like I did a pretty near-perfect job for me at a superspeedway until the last lap there,’’ said Larson, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion. “I should have faked going high and gone back low. I had that run there. Just that little inexperience there, probably.”
Larson’s Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott, a former Talladega winner, finished seventh, followed by former Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell, Hendrick’s Alex Bowman and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
The race ending capped off a typically dramatic day featuring 41 lead changes among 16 drivers. Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron led a race-best 38 of the 188 laps and won Stage 2, but finished 15th, unable to make up ground after his final pit stop in the dicey closing laps.
Bubba Wallace, who won last fall at Talladega and led 15 laps on Sunday, won Stage 1 – his first stage win of the season – but like Byron, lost positions in the final laps. He was involved in a wreck coming to the checkered flag and finished 17th in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota.
Elliott’s top-10 finish was good enough to extend the championship lead over 11th place finisher, Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney. He’s now 21 points up on the field heading to Dover International Speedway next weekend. The NASCAR Cup Series will race Sunday in the DuraMAX Drydene 400 presented by ReLaDyne (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Bowman is the defending race winner.