Ross Chastain Proves Early-Season NASCAR Races Don’t Matter, Not Even the Daytona 500

Ross Chastain had one of the biggest breakthrough seasons in recent NASCAR Cup Series history, but he also showed why drawing conclusions from races early in a season is a dangerous task.

Chastain burst onto the NASCAR scene in 2022 with his first two Cup Series wins and series-highs in both top-fives (15) and top-10 finishes (21). He ultimately finished second in the championship standings behind only Joey Logano in a remarkable turnaround for a driver with only three top-five finishes in his first 115 Cup Series starts combined.

Ross Chastain waited a long time for his chance in a top Cup Series ride

Chastain had a long journey to stardom in the Cup Series. He ran the full Xfinity Series schedule from 2015-18 and eventually won his first race in the series in 2018 when he drove for Chip Ganassi Racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He still topped out at 10th in the points standings that season while running his first full Cup Series campaign. Chastain struggled through two years in the No. 15 car for Premium Motorsports that netted only a single top-10 finish before he was back to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2020.

Chastain found a home in the No. 10 car for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series for 2020. He led the series with 27 top-10 finishes and ended the year a career-high seventh in the points standings. He also drove a handful of Cup Series races but got by far his best Cup Series opportunity the following season.

CGR signed Chastain to pilot its No. 42 car for the entire 2021 schedule, but the pairing led to only mixed results. Chastain registered his first three top-five finishes in the Cup Series but ended the season 20th in the points standings.

Trackhouse Racing then bought out CGR at the end of the season and decided to keep Chastain in-house and give him the seat in the No. 1 car.

Few could have guessed the rise that the team would experience in 2022.

Chastain and Trackhouse Racing were surprise contenders in 2022

Ross Chastain at the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Ross Chastain waves to fans onstage during the Championship 4 driver intros prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 | Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Chastain won his first career Cup Series race at the Circuit of the Americas in only the sixth race of the season. He followed that with a win four races later at Talladega Superspeedway and had established himself as a legitimate playoff contender.

He made some enemies along the way with his hard-charging style, but a string of four straight top-five finishes at the end of the season, including his famous last-lap, wall-riding move at Martinsville Speedway, put him only one spot away from going from a winless driver who was merely hoping to stay in the series to a champion in only one year.

Yet, all of that success came after one of the worst beginnings to a season of any driver in the series.

His triumphant 2022 season started poorly

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Chastain finished sixth out of nine drivers in his heat race at the Clast at the Coliseum exhibition event to kick off the 2022 season. He finished sixth again in the last-chance qualifier race and was not part of the main event.

He followed an inauspicious debut with Trackhouse in Los Angeles with a dreadful first points-paying race with his new organization. He qualified 19th but got caught up in a wreck on Lap 62 of the 200-lap Daytona 500. The incident destroyed his No. 1 machine, and he finished dead last in 40th.

The following week at Auto Club Speedway was not much better. Chastain started the race 33rd in a backup car after a hard crash in practice. He ended the race two laps down in 29th and was 36th in the points standings.

Chastain’s season turned around dramatically after Fontana. He finished third or better in the next four races, a streak that ended with his victory at COTA and propelled him all the way up to fifth in the points standings.

He reached as high as second by the Memorial Day weekend 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and stayed inside the top five in the standings through the remainder of the regular season.

The beginning of a NASCAR season can create mirages for drivers who start off hot, as well.

Aric Almirola finished sixth or better in each of the first three races and was sixth in the points standings when the series returned from the three-race West Coast Swing that annually follows the Daytona 500.

Almirola proceeded to record only four top-10s in the final 22 races of the regular season and dropped to 19th in the points standings.

None of this means the Daytona 500 shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is a highly prestigious event, and the start of every season is filled with the wonderful anticipation of how a new season will unfold. Plus, a win gains a driver playoff eligibility, provided 16 or fewer drivers win a regular-season race.

Just keep in mind it is quite possible, as Ross Chastain showed in 2022, that the results of those early season races won’t mean much at all when it gets time to decide the final championship contenders.