Ross Chastain seemingly backed down from his typical aggressive nature to win Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Geico 500 at Talladega Speedway, but his innate aggression is still very well alive. In fact, it is the reason he was in contention to win at all.
Chastain has developed a reputation as a driver who is not afraid to make bold moves. If anything, he prefers them.
Ross Chastain used patience on the final lap at Talladega
He took the white flag in third place Sunday as the field embarked on the race’s final lap. Erik Jones led with Kyle Larson in second. Kurt Busch jumped to the high lane from the fourth position, and Larson moved up to block. Jones darted high in an attempt to block Larson, which allowed Chastain to slip by underneath and get the win.
Chastain effectively won the race without making a move at all.
“I thought my best chance of winning was to just push the bottom,” Chastain said in his post-race press conference. “That was wrong because the 43 still cleared all of us, but still I thought it was going to put me in the best position to win. … I just thought that was my best maneuver, which I never thought that before. It’s not like, Oh, I should have always done that in the past. It just worked out this time.”
That patience and commitment to the bottom lane may have won the race, but Chastain leaned into the mindset that has gotten him this far in his career, more than 130 laps beforehand.
Chastain nearly wrecked the leaders in Stage 1
Chastain incurred a speeding penalty during the first round of green-flag pit stops on lap 35, which required another pass down pit lane to serve the penalty. He and Michael McDowell teamed up to draft during the next 17 laps, but the leaders eventually ran them down.
Typically, drivers about to be lapped at superspeedways either go as far to the high side of the track as they can or remain as low on the track as possible to let the front pack pass. Lapped drivers can then blend in toward the back of the pack.
Brad Keselowski had already been lapped because of his own pit-road speeding penalty, so Chastain knew it would be imperative to stay in front of Keselowski and McDowell so he could be the lucky-dog recipient at the end of the stage and return to the lead lap.
With nine laps left before the end of the first stage, Chastain did not maintain his line behind McDowell. He instead moved up to the middle of the track to intentionally try to break up the pack of leaders so he wouldn’t fall as far through the field and potentially drop behind Keselowski and McDowell.
“That was my goal, was create turbulence where I can catch up, and they don’t put me all the way to the back,” Chastain said after the race. “I mean, I thought about it for a few laps. It’s not something I would do every time. In that situation, I felt the risk of what I was doing was enough to get the free pass at the stage break, to get around (McDowell) and stay ahead of Brad.”
The move was effective but dangerous.
“So close to being in a wreck right there, and if it would have been on his hands, that would have looked pretty bad,” FOX Sports analyst and former NASCAR Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer said from the TV booth.
Chastain’s career mirrors Trackhouse Racing’s rise
The aggression paid off. Chastain disrupted the field in Stage 1 to put himself in position to succeed later, much like his team, Trackhouse Racing, has done since it joined the sport in 2021.
Co-owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, the organization debuted a year ago with Daniel Suarez in the No. 99 car. It expanded for this season when it purchased Chip Ganassi Racing and kept Chastain in the No. 1 car, a holdover from CGR.
Chastain had never won a Cup Series race before, and the four, four-car powerhouses of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Penske Racing (if the No. 21 car is included) won all but three races a year ago.
That doesn’t leave much room for a startup such as Trackhouse to break into the sport and have success but, just like Chastain’s driving style, the surprise organization of the 2022 season was zealous in how it built its teams and knew it would have to disrupt the status quo to gain a foothold in the series.
Chastain and Trackhouse have arrived at the point where patience can now win the race because of the aggressiveness they used to get there.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference