After years of struggling to be an impact player in the NASCAR Cup Series, Ross Chastain has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2022 season.
Not that everyone is surprised by his success, though. His newest team owner – former Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck series driver Justin Marks – isn’t. Neither is Chastain’s first NASCAR boss – former Truck Series driver and team owner Stacy Compton.
In fact, from the day Chastain first strapped into one of Compton’s trucks in 2011, Compton saw potential for greatness.
“This kid is the real deal,” Compton recently said of the 29-year-old driver and eighth-generation watermelon farmer who in his first season with Trackhouse Racing scored Cup Series career victory No. 1 at Circuit of The Americas in March. “He’s a smart, hard racer and crazy competitive. I was impressed after he spent five laps in our truck; he just gets it. He will win many more races down the road.”
Marks also believes this. After purchasing the NASCAR assets of Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of 2021 and making plans to expand to a two-car operation at Trackhouse Racing, Marks needed a driver to fill his new seat. He ultimately looked no further than Chastain, one of two drivers who had competed for Ganassi’s Cup program in 2021 but was left without a ride as a result of the Trackhouse acquisition.
Not knowing what his future held, Chastain waited – nervously – to see what Marks would do.
“When the Ganassi buyout happened, he texted me … and he just wrote, ‘I want this,’” Marks said. “He had to be patient with me while I let the dust settle, but we all were huge, huge believers in Ross’ talent. We knew what he was capable of doing, and he has proven it.”
Indeed he has. After entering this season with nary a win and only three top-five finishes in 115 Cup Series starts, Chastain somehow managed to find the proverbial gear he had been missing since making his Cup Series debut in 2017. A quarter of the way through the season, Chastain had five top-five finishes – including his playoffclinching win at Circuit of The Americas.
Over an incredible four-race stretch culminating in his triumph in Austin, Texas, Chastain finished no worse than third. That’s pretty head-turning stuff for a guy who had to return to Xfinity Series competition in 2020 after his first two mostly full seasons in the Cup Series bore little fruit. Even today, Chastain sometimes lacks self-confidence.
“I don’t view myself as a Cup Series-winning race car driver,” he said. “I just feel like I have to work to get there, and I’m not there yet. There’s so many mistakes I make. There’s mental, and physical. There’s the shifting, the braking, just the feedback in practice. There’s so many ways to mess this stuff up, and I haven’t done it perfect yet.”
Perfection, though, isn’t the expectation that Marks or anyone else has for Chastain. They simply want to him to do his best and be committed – which is hardly a problem for a guy who scratched and clawed for years to get noticed in the sport he loves. “I’m a proponent of starting out, you race,” Chastain said. “You just race everything you can. As long as you’re at the track, you just never know, right? I’ve carried around an extra set of driving stuff in case somebody got sick, and I’ve blown up in races and started races and then gotten in somebody else’s truck to finish the race for them. You just have to keep going. You have to buy in.” Even if buying in means making some pretty big sacrifices, which for Chastain includes not visiting his family’s Florida watermelon farm as much as he would like. “You have to give up a lot,” he said. “You have to give up a personal life. Some guys balance both. I’ve never been able to balance both. I’m 29 and single and just chasing race cars. I know it sounds silly to say, but that’s a conscious effort to do that.” Chastain recently sat down with NASCAR Pole Position and answered our questions.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU AS AN EIGHTH-GENERATION WATERMELON FARMER TO CARRY ON YOUR FAMILY’S HERITAGE AND LEGACY?
I’m very proud of my family and the work they have done in farming, knowing we are carrying on something that started so long ago. There are many farm families across the country just like mine.
WITH ALL YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AROUND RACING, HOW OFTEN DO YOU GET TO VISIT YOUR FLORIDA WATERMELON FARM THESE DAYS AND HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU TRY TO SPEND THERE?
I try to get back often as I can, but as everyone knows, we are pretty busy for most of the year in NASCAR. But North Carolina isn’t that far, so I can hop in a car and can be back home in a matter of hours.
WHAT’S THE CRAZIEST ITEM OR OBJECT YOU’VE EVER BEEN ASKED TO AUTOGRAPH?
I love signing watermelons. That isn’t crazy!
HAS THIS SEASON SURPASSED YOUR PERSONAL EXPECTATIONS? IF SO, BY HOW MUCH? IF NOT, WHY NOT?
I am thrilled with this season so far. We have run really well. The boys and girls at Trackhouse Racing and Chevrolet are building very fast race cars. Plus, winning at COTA was a lifelong dream come true. It’s been a great year.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO GET YOUR FIRST CUP SERIES WIN AND WHAT WAS THE FIRST THING THAT WENT THROUGH YOUR MIND AFTER TAKING THE CHECKERED FLAG?
Just remember all the hard work, everyone who has helped me along the way, and how much my family means to me.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO RACE FOR A LIVING AND WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE SPORT?
Racing just gets in your blood. We all have it. We eat, drink and sleep racing.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE RUNNING COMPETITIVELY ON A REGULAR BASIS AND CONTENDING FOR WINS AFTER STRUGGLING FOR SEVERAL YEARS TO LAND A QUALITY CUP SERIES RIDE?
This is a dream come true. I have to pinch myself as a reminder that this is really happening.
IF YOU HAD TO PICK BETWEEN WINNING A CUP SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP AND THE DAYTONA 500, WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF BEING AND HOW DO YOU IMAGINE YOUR LIFE LOOKING 35 YEARS FROM NOW?
I hope I have some role in racing and farming.
This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 edition of NASCAR Pole Position Magazine.