Ross Chastain has preached all year he wasn’t going to change or flip a switch when the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began. Despite being in championship contention for the first time, Chastain has treated each week as business as usual.
This week, however, Chastain finally realized this business is slightly different. Particularly when seeing his name on the board for media day and being asked about the title fight as he sat at Thursday’s event just yards away from the Bill France Cup.
“It’s pretty wild,” Chastain said. “This week has felt almost awkwardly normal and I didn’t expect that. Sitting here, yes, this is different. Even go back one calendar year, and the guys that I trained with were all here, and I was the only one in the group not. That was humbling.
“I was out training and probably pushed myself too hard that day, but it was motivating. Not that pedaling the bike harder that day was going to make me get here. But it’s pretty wild to be here. I worked to get here, but I just never thought I would get here, honestly.”
Chastain should be considered a favorite for a deep playoff run, but he comes with baggage. The numerous run-ins Chastain had during the regular season might seem settled, but drivers have long memories. Some of the chatter the last few weeks has been whether those enemies have been waiting before striking back.
Chastain hears that chatter. But off the track, Chastain feels he’s done a good job tuning it out.
“Probably sometimes too much,” he said. “I don’t actually keep up with what people are saying enough. On track, yeah, I know who’s around me, and I know obviously know every situation and every scenario that’s happened this year.
“You can tell right away if a car is being driven aggressively against me or not. On track, yes, but off track, I probably don’t do a good enough job to keep up with words being said.”
There’s also been plenty said directly to him, Chastain says.
“I’ve had a lot of opinions given to me and a lot of advice, and I truly believe it’s all with the right intentions,” Chastain said. “Honestly dad joke of the day here — just like my iPhone is out of storage space, and it can’t take anything else like it’s always telling me it hasn’t been backed up because it has no more storage. I’m kind of that way too.
“There’s a lot that just kind of goes in one ear and out the other, for better or worse. But I do take everybody’s opinion and make my own. Inform my own thought. I’m human. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to do exactly the opposite of what somebody says even though their way was better. Sometimes it’s on purpose and sometimes it’s not.”
With a smile, Chastain wouldn’t say who he’s been talking to but seemed grateful for their guidance.
“It’s some really crazy people,” Chastain said. “Some you’d know their names, and some not that I hold them really high.”
Whereas Chastain was calm in his engagement with the media and clearly taking it all in, his teammate projected a much more relaxed demeanor. Daniel Suarez genuinely looked like a guy who was doing media availability at just another race when it was time for him to take a seat at media day.
“It feels nice, but honestly, it feels normal,” said Suarez. “I believe that I belong here. When you have a team like the one I have, I feel like it’s more like a must to be in this position. I think we’re in a great position. I have an amazing team behind me.
“Trackhouse has done a tremendous job this year. We have to continue to evolve, though. We cannot sleep in the next 10 weeks. It’s the most important part of the season, of course. We have to continue to do the same thing that we’ve been doing and continue to get better.”
For Chastain, his first postseason run comes in his fourth full season at the Cup Series level. Suarez’s wait to be included in the pictures and the press obligations was a little longer as he’s in his sixth full year.
It’s the first time Trackhouse Racing is represented in the postseason. Chastain won two races early in the season, and Suarez finally broke through before the halfway point in the year.
Suarez’s first appearance on the playoff grid was paid a compliment by fellow driver William Byron, who pointed at Suarez as a driver who is flying under the radar but could be a threat.
“I got goosebumps by you saying that because I’ve been working very hard to do that,” Suarez. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to do it that way. If you think about it, the year I won the [Xfinity Series] championship, not a lot of people bet on me. I did and I won it. So, I like it that way. I like to be under the radar and not to make a lot of noise.”
Suarez didn’t miss a beat before continuing with a laugh, “the opposite of my teammate. And go out there and beat them. But quietly.”
Neither Chastain nor Suarez is satisfied with what should already be categorized as a successful season. While both are having career years, as Suarez said, “I think the fun part is about to begin.”