On Sept. 1, 2018, Ross Chastain drove a NASCAR Xfinity Series car that could win the race. It was a first for Chastain, who was making his first start in a three-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. On that day at Darlington Raceway, Chastain led 90 laps and was battling side-by-side for the lead with Kevin Harvick inside 50 laps to go when the two made contact off Turn 2.
Chastain bounced off the wall and back into Harvick, who spun. Neither won – Chastain wound up 25th and Harvick failed to finish. Afterward, Harvick called Chastain a “really inexperienced racer” in a really fast car who “made a really bad move” and then hooked him down the backstretch. Harvick also noted: “That’s probably the reason that he’ll never get to drive many of them again.”
Darlington was Chastain’s coming-out party; the underdog who finally got a chance to show what he was capable of in good equipment. He became one of the hottest prospects in the sport, and although his career hasn’t gone as planned since that day, Chastain did finally make it to the top. More than four years later, Chastain is still driving race-winning cars and still aggravates the competition.
But it’s lonely at the top, as he’s now learning with Trackhouse Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sunday was the latest example of how Chastain’s never quit attitude has rubbed the competition the wrong way. Chastain admits he gave Noah Gragson “exactly one lane” as they fought off Turn 4 in the final stage at Kansas Speedway. There was no contact between the pair, but Gragson bounced off the wall and saw red, confronting Chastain after the race.
But even before the incident with Gragson, Chastain was already on someone else’s enemy list. Kyle Busch doored Chastain twice down the backstretch Sunday, which led to Chastain pulling up next to him under caution. When Busch’s team questioned what Chastain was mad about when he “wrecks everybody every week,” Busch said Chastain was mad because Busch is mad that Chastain races like a (expletive) and then another word for rear end, so Busch doored him twice as a warning.
Gragson. Busch. Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex Jr. Austin Dillon. Those are just a few drivers who have been vocal about how Chastain races. Christopher Bell even tried to blame Chastain for an incident at Richmond Raceway a few weeks ago before apologizing on Twitter once he’d seen the replay.
There has been a definite learning curve for Chastain, and the drivers around him. As Chastain got more experience running at the front of the field and learning the tendencies of competition he had previously been unfamiliar with, the competition, in turn, had to get used to Chastain being in the picture.
But it’s been a few seasons since Chastain has been consistently in the mix, and the field still doesn’t seem to appreciate his style. The same passion and hard racing that Chastain showed at Darlington a few years ago haven’t gone away. Those characteristics likely never will. Chastain races every lap like it’s the last lap. Or like he’s fighting for his job.
Considering his background of fighting for every opportunity in the sport, fighting for positions and finishes each weekend isn’t surprising. That’s who Chastain is.
Whether he is right or wrong in any situation, Chastain has people talking and paying attention. He is polarizing. Some love his scrappy approach and give 100% mentality all race, every race. And there are those, as it’s been clear the last two years, who think he needs to back it down.
Depending on whom you ask, Chastain is either the hero or the villain. Stories, television shows, movies, and sports need heroes and villains. There needs to be someone to love or love to hate. There has to be a plot to follow, and without the good versus evil, without having something or someone to overcome, without someone memorable to focus on, the story, show, movie, or race is not as fun to see play out.
Chastain doesn’t need to change, and it doesn’t appear he will. Through all the adversity, Chastain has continued to race and explain himself the same way. And the competition doesn’t need to change their view on Chastain, either. Again that’s what makes this fun to see play out, and it would be confusing why some want to eliminate this aspect of the sport.
There have been “got Chastained” insults thrown around, tongue-in-cheek “Thanks, Ross” banter where Chastain was blamed for outlandish things he wasn’t associated with, and some on social media long ago labeled it the “No (expletives) given tour.”
Chastain might not be an inexperienced racer anymore, but he’s still in fast race cars and making everyone pay attention. There is nothing wrong with that. Not all drivers need to get along, and not all drivers should be cut from the same cloth.
Ross Chastain brings both of those to NASCAR.