Ross Chastain's contention for NASCAR title: "Never in my wildest dreams"
When Ross Chastain grew up racing around Central Florida, the adage of ‘race your competitor how you would like to be raced — and how your competitor races you' wasn't exactly the philosophy Chastain could take to the track.
The adage was a little more rough.
"Just slam or be slammed," Chastain said.
Chastain has never competed in the Cup playoffs prior to this season, let alone for a championship as he will do Sunday as one of the four drivers eligible for the championship at Phoenix Raceway. The top finisher among Chastain, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell and Chase Elliott will be crowned the champion.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have an opportunity to go fight for a championship," Chastain said.
The 29-year-old eighth-generation watermelon farmer needed more than dreams to make his first Cup championship appearance, although he is making the appearance thanks to a move that most would consider one of just dreams when he rode the wall Sunday at Martinsville Speedway at high speed to gain the spots he needed.
Buoyed by that crazy last lap at Martinsville (you've probably seen the video by now), he will try to use everything he learned as a young driver growing up, in previous playoff appearances in trucks and Xfinity and during a somewhat tumultuous 2022 of Cup racing to capture the title.
"I thought, why not?" Chastain said about the Martinsville move. "That's a motto that some buddies and I have back home. We live by 'why not?' To apply that to the Cup Series in this scenario, there are rules. There are a lot of rules out here.
"I didn't know how it would all work out. I didn't know if the physics would work to make it around the corner, but it did. I'm sure glad it did."
Growing up racing, Chastain had to slam to earn success. He continued that philosophy throughout his career, and he needed it to get ahead in typically underfunded equipment.
Only for the last four years has he driven for full-time teams capable of running up front consistently, and this is only the second year in which he has raced for a Cup effort that could make noise.
"This is somebody that wants it more than anybody else in this garage area and will do whatever it takes," said his car owner Justin Marks, whose Trackhouse Racing is only in its second year.
"And there's a learning curve there in how to race and be able to race with these guys for a long time,"
Chastain had gotten in the occasional scuffle while racing in the Xfinity and Truck Series but when he got to Cup, he raised the ire of several drivers, especially over the summer. He made risky moves that didn't work at a time in the race where he didn't need to take the risk.
"There's so many races and so many opportunities to pass and be passed," Chastain said. "It's not all about the here and now. I had to stop living in the moment of each lap and race, definitely with a mindset of a broader look across the whole season and see that the entire body of work will get me a lot farther than one pass.
"Not caring about what happens and just putting a lot at risk for what? Fourth? Seventh? Why does that really matter?"
It matters when a driver has a 15th-place car most weeks. But when a driver has cars that could win, he needs to be able to be in a position to take amid the give-and-take of the Cup Series.
"If I just look at the whole body of the season, especially with the speed we've had, and letting the car do a lot of the work for me that when we get in those positions, ... it comes a whole lot easier when you've just done it a better way," Chastain said.
That better way includes the way he comes off in front of the camera. His interviews after confrontations with drivers were extremely apologetic and portrayed a driver who seemed to lack confidence.
"I also didn't do myself any favors in those moments, I'd say throughout the summer, where the spotlight was on us and I got out and my post-race interviews were not appealing," Chastain said.
"I look back and I'm like, ‘I wouldn't root for that guy.' That guy, he drives one way then he talks the other and he doesn't know what he wants, and he apologizes. ... That's part of the evolution as well."
Chastain has tried to learn, even calling Hamlin to meet for a meal and talk about what he could do better after their tangles.
"I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and kind of hear where he was coming from," Hamlin said. "It was interesting to hear his upbringing versus my upbringing and why we have different values on the racetrack than what we do.
"It was just good to hear that, which is why I was doubly pissed a few weeks later when he did it again in Atlanta."
That Atlanta race came in mid-July. Three months later, in the elimination race Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin and Chastain raced side-by-side, trading a little paint while battling for position. Chastain eventually conceded and then used an incredible move to make the passes he needed to advance to the championship round.
In a move that will go down in NASCAR lore, Chastain drove 50 mph faster into the turn and used the wall to turn the car — he actually took his hands off the steering wheel while his foot mashed the gas as he rode along the wall. He passed five cars in two turns while recording the fastest lap ever in a stock car at Martinsville.
"The type of psychology it takes to make a move like that, to be able to think about a move like that and actually have the balls to do it is one of the things that makes Ross Chastain very unique and very, very special," Marks said.
Chastain didn't always make those moves successfully. He learned lessons about the difference of the way he raced in making the championship in trucks in 2019 and then getting eliminated in the semifinal round in Xfinity.
"My time in the truck series with Niece in 2019 and then Kaulig in 2020 – one was successful to make it to the final four and one was not," Chastain said. "Looking back, there was blatant differences in how I executed things.
"I would like to be a little more like the guy in the truck and a little less like the guy in the car."
And what was the difference in Chastain?
"He finished races where his truck allowed him to," Chastain said about himself. "The guy in the car tried to go win the race or try to run second or third in the Round of 8. The car, it didn't work out. I hit the wall a couple of times in different races."
In other words, it's best to pick and choose the best time to hit the wall. He hopes to give himself and Trackhouse a championship.
If it doesn't come Sunday, he believes there will be more opportunities in the years ahead. It's something he has learned in this year of growth.
"I've never driven cars this fast, and I wanted to just take full advantage of it because I thought it might go away," Chastain said.
"And now as I've seen throughout the playoffs is where it really opened my eyes that Trackhouse's arrival here is to stay. We're not just a flash in the pan."
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.