Whether he was competing for victories with race-winning teams, or punching above his weight while running for underfunded ones, the talent of Ross Chastain has been well-documented since he joined the NASCAR National Series ranks in 2011.
Though, since getting the opportunity to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series for an organization that appears to be leading a culture shift, Trackhouse Racing, the headlines have been pointed at his aggressive driving style, rather than his performance and results.
Sure, he’s ticked off a couple of drivers – and maybe an owner or two in the process, but the narrative surrounding the 30-year-old has been consistent from the start: If he can find a balance that includes his aggressive nature, and the patience of a veteran, he becomes a candidate for one, if not several, NASCAR Cup Series titles.
In Sunday’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway, it appeared that balance had been found, putting a new version of the old Ross Chastain on display for those who continue to put him under a microscope.
But, it isn’t a complete rebrand of the Ross Chastain that was able to claw his way into the NASCAR Cup Series over the course of the last decade. In fact, think of it more as a software update, or as Chastain has referred to it, an evolution.
“I’m always going to evolve and that’s human nature, we’re going to do that,” Chastain said after winning the Ally 400. “So, as I’ve looked and reflected on the last month or six weeks, I didn’t just get here overnight, I had to look further back and trust my tools.”
That need for self-reflection came to a head following the NASCAR Cup Series event at Darlington Raceway in May, when Chastain, in prime position to score his first victory of the season, got into it with Kyle Larson, taking both cars out of contention.
It wasn’t even the incident that triggered those feelings, either, but rather the comments made by Rick Hendrick, owner of Larson’s car, afterward, when he straight up said that his team’s allegiance to Chevrolet wouldn’t stop them from retaliating against Ross.
“Look, when Mr. Hendrick criticizes publicly, it’s tough,” Chastain admitted. “He is the guy that everybody knows and they know that what he says goes, he deserves that, but I took that and he said: ‘You’re going to win again, Ross. You’re going to keep competing, just do it a little better, and don’t crash my cars, please.'”
This turning point could have been a result of that criticism from Hendrick, or maybe just discussions between himself and team owner Justin Marks. Hell, it could even just be the natural progression of a driver in his third season at NASCAR’s top level.
Regardless, Sunday’s event at Nashville was the first prominent display of a new balancing act for Chastain, one that blended his aggressive driving style with the patience necessary to score the victory in a place deemed a second home for Trackhouse Racing.
There was one particular moment that showcased that very balance in the closing stages of Sunday’s race, when Chastain was working through lapped traffic, while also trying to defend his lead against Martin Truex, Jr.
Approaching a pair of lapped cars racing side-by-side (Aric Almirola and JJ Yeley), Chastain was boxed in, and had Alex Bowman directly behind him on fresh tires. After biding his time for several laps, the driver of the No. 1 decided to shoot the gap, going three wide in the middle to clear the two vehicles.
“Aric [Almirola] and his man upstairs on the spotter stand, they have it out for me and they’re open about it and when we come up to lap him at Dover and [Nashville], they’re going to run me all over the track,” Chastain said after the race. “So, I took a risky move, I felt like that was really high risk, but it was worth the reward to get that clean air.”
“I had been very patient behind Aric trying to out wrap him like [Brandon] McReynolds was saying on the stand all day, or trying to just roll around him, then when I saw them side-by-side if the middle opens I’m – and it opened right as I was thinking it.”
That aggressive three-wide move is ultimately what allowed Chastain to extend his gap even further over Martin Truex, Jr. in the race’s closing laps, and ended up being extremely crucial in getting the Alva, Florida-native into victory lane for the first time in 43 races.
Once he crossed the start-finish line under the checkered flag, the celebration was unreal, not just for Chastain, but his entire Trackhouse Racing crew. Even Daniel Suarez tried to get in on the celebration, but in doing so, pulled directly in front of Chase Briscoe.
“This is why every little kid out there anywhere in the world, when you get criticized – and you’re going to if you’re competitive, they will try to tear you down,” Chastain said on the frontstretch after the race. “You will start believing you can’t do it. You have to go to your people, trust in the process, read your books, trust the big man’s plan upstairs, and just keep getting up and going to work.”
“I got to tell you, a lot of self-reflection throughout all of this. I had a group that believed in me and didn’t let me get down. They bring rocketships and I just try to point them to Victory Lane.”
The emotion put on display by Chastain after jumping out of his Worldwide Express Chevrolet Camaro easily rivaled that of a driver who secured their first victory in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Maybe that’s because this was the first victory – the first victory for the new Ross Chastain.