TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — He stood atop the winning Chevrolet at Talladega Superspeedway, ready to celebrate in his own way. But when Ross Chastain crushed a month-old watermelon on the track, the crowd roared like he was Earnhardt coming off a thrilling victory on the final lap.
It was “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said the eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida.
“I want it to break; I don’t want it to just 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 scanned down to the tri-oval, people were going crazy.
“It’s indescribable. I don’t have the words, but the feeling they instilled in me was what you dreamed of.
Rewind to 2018 and Chastain was just another struggling race car driver, desperate for a big team to give him a chance. He drove a camper van for Spire Motorsports around the track most weeks to earn extra money; the best drivers take off for the races, where their luxury house on the track awaits and is filled with groceries. Chastain needed a hand.
The DC Solar CEO noticed Chastain on the track one day washing the Spire RV and decided to back him with company money in an Xfinity Series race for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019. Kinda over a month later, the FBI accused DC Solar of being a Ponzi scheme and the case fell apart.
Ganassi shut down the Xfinity Series team, Chastain was back to square one, and the CEO of DC Solar was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The following seasons were a rollercoaster ride for Chastain, who desperately wanted to prove he deserved a top run in the Cup. He made mistakes, wrecked his teammates and only won one Xfinity race after the Ganassi deal fell through.
Then Ganassi recalled ahead of the 2021 season to fill Kyle Larson’s seat. And it was going pretty well until Ganassi shocked the industry by selling his entire NASCAR organization to Justin Marks last June.
Now the driver was freaked out again – even a little nauseous – starting over.
in only its second season, assured Chastain that everything would be fine. He signed him to drive with basically 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 crushed watermelons.
“Ross spent a number of years in his career fighting every lap of every race because tomorrow wasn’t given, because next week wasn’t guaranteed,” Marks said. “I saw 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, where he had some job security.”
“He is now comfortable in his job and in his skin, understands and knows that this team is built around him,” added Marks. “He can breathe, be more calculated, not try to do everything right now.”
That’s what won Chastain Sunday’s race.
Unlike previous superspeedway races where Chastain often made bad strategic moves or, worse, made outright mistakes that led to wrecked cars, he remained determined not to mess anything up. He stayed in the bot lane behind leader Erik Jones and wasn’t going to budge.
When Jones went 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 a clear track ahead of him and Jones had his hands full to hold Larson back in the top lane.
That patience and maturity earned Chastain the shocking victory. He only led the last stretch from the racetrack to the finish line for the entire race.
“The patience side is tough,” Chastain said. “It’s so hard. Every split-second decision has to be quick, but you also have to be able to live with the consequences. I just thought it was my best move, which I didn’t never thought before. I’ve made the mistake many times in Xfinity cars (when) I progressed or made a move, and (someone else) won the race.”
He’ll have a new watermelon this Sunday in Dover, Delaware. If Chastain continues to show the same maturity, Trackhouse may need to replenish his supply.
More AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports