Ross Chastain Can Learn From a Crucial Change Ernie Irvan Made in His Cup Series Career
Chastain has shifted the narrative for the time being. All anyone wants to talk about now is the brilliant, unconventional finish at Martinsville, where he ripped the wall for a quarter-mile to muscle into the Cup Series Championship 4.
Still, fans will return to lamenting “the same ol’ Ross” the next time another driver’s day ends with getting “Chastained.”
Ross Chastain had a busy two-win Cup Series season
Ten races into the 2022 Cup Series season, Ross Chastain was still the guy who smashed watermelons after winning races. Sure, he’d had run-ins – literally – with fellow drivers mixed in with the wins at Circuit of the Americas on March 27 and Talladega on April 24, but the narrative only changed six weeks later at World Wide Technology Raceway.
There, Chastain’s aggressiveness angered Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott to the point of retaliation, and it immediately changed public perception of the 29-year-old watermelon farmer from Florida.
“I just drove over my head so many times,” Chastain said after finishing eighth. “It’s one thing to do it once, but I just kept driving into guys. I can’t believe walking back right now that I did it repeatedly, and I had time to stop and think out there under caution. It would go green, and I would do it again. I’ve tried so hard to be better.”
Suddenly, the intense finish with Alex Bowman and AJ Allmendinger at COTA felt different. Add in the All-Star Race wreck and Chastain taking an alternate route on the Indianapolis road course during the final restart, and now people questioned what Chastain wouldn’t do to win. By the time he spun Hamlin at Atlanta in mid-July, his recklessness was the Cup Series’ No. 1 story.
Mark Martin would like to see Chastain make an Ernie Irvan-like change
Talk about the new Next Gen car gave way to fascination over the under-30 drivers winning races early in the season. That was followed by speculation over whether the NASCAR Cup Series would produce more winners than it had playoff spots. At the end of it all, Joey Logano’s second championship was the story.
Side-by-side with so many of the storylines was Ross Chastain chatter. Fans loved him or hated him; not many remained neutral. Former NASCAR star Mark Martin counts himself as a fan – with one reservation.
“The only thing that’s kept me from being his No. 1 fanboy is he’s been rougher than I think necessary,” Martin said on the Mark, Mamba & the Mayor podcast.
Martin raced against Ernie Irvan 308 times from 1988-99 and remembers all too well the first third of Irvan’s career. The man was both talented and a nuisance on four wheels.
“He was so incredibly fast, but he bounced off a lot of stuff – a lot of times that meant people, drivers. I didn’t appreciate that. And I understand it was a different time. But the thing about Ernie was, after he did that long enough, he recognized that it was going to deter his career if he kept on that path. … I would like to see Ross be able to make that change.”
Ernie Irvan’s apology was sincere
Something that bothers rivals about Ross Chastain is that the driver of the No. 1 Chevy acknowledged several times this season that he needed to do better but continued confusing races with demolition derbies.
Ernie Irvan was that kind of driver, minus the apologies. His mess seriously injured Neil Bonnett at Darlington in 1990. Kyle Petty broke a leg at Talladega the following season after Irvan triggered “The Big One.”
Finally, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip pulled Irvan aside.
“We pointed out that he was getting himself in a lot of trouble and wrecking cars and people were upset with him,” Waltrip told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t going to have a future in the sport if he didn’t correct his ways. He said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You need to get up in the drivers meeting Sunday and apologize.’”
Irvan did more than that. He walked the garages on the Saturday of a race weekend to seek out drivers and owners. The next day, his apology and pledge to be smarter drew applause in the meeting.
He still took some ill-advised chances and ultimately had to leave the sport after one too many serious injuries of his own, but Irvan was no longer “Gurney Ernie.”
“I still drove just as hard,” Irvan said. “I think I just was more conscious of trying to respect my fellow racers.”
Chastain can match Irvan’s 15 career victories. How he chooses to get there is up to him.
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