The next few months have the potential to be a major turning point in Ross Chastain’s NASCAR career.
The Alva, Florida native, in his second full-time season in the XFINITY Series is once again racing with JD Motorsports. Through the first twelve races, Chastain’s biggest highlight was running near the front of the pack and briefly leading last month’s race at Charlotte. Chastain is still seeking his first top ten of the season, but he has been running at the finish of every race and currently rides a streak of five straight top-20 finishes.
More importantly, Chastain finds himself 14th in points heading into this weekend’s race at Michigan. He’ll likely be able to surpass Jeb Burton, who unfortunately lost his ride last week, and remain on the verge of challenging for a spot in the Chase.
Chastain’s presence in the Chase conversation is not insignificant. As the season progresses, the prospect of being included in the championship fight will become the major goal of Chastain’s JDM No. 4 team. Should the make it, the Chase berth would be further evidence that Chastain has a future in NASCAR, perhaps a bright one.
Chastain’s story is not a new one in the world of professional stock car racing. Fellow underdogs Blake Koch, Ryan Sieg, and Jeremy Clements have all done an admirable job in the XFINITY Series this year, racing against larger and better-funded organizations often bolstered by Sprint Cup regulars.
Those three drivers will continue to battle with Chastain for the final few Chase spots. Chastain, however, deserves recognition for carving out a place for himself in NASCAR by showcasing his talent with every opportunity he gets, even the little ones. After all, how is any young driver without a major sponsor or family-supported team supposed to make it in this business otherwise?
The fact that Chastain is racing full-time in NASCAR is an accomplishment in of itself. He first appeared in the Camping World Truck Series back in 2011 at the age of 18, racing a handful of events. He joined forces with owner Bobby Dotter in 2012, running the full season. Though Chastain showed flashes of potential, including a third place finish at Bristol, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him fade away after that season. The Truck Series has always had its fair share of drivers who show up one day and are seemingly gone the next.
Chastain, however, landed a part-time ride with Brad Keselowski’s growing team in 2013. It was an opportunity that Chastain earned the hard way, by racing his guts out every week in Dotter’s trucks. It is true that Chastain, who grew up on a watermelon farm, had some backing from the National Watermelon Association to help get his foot in the door. That sponsorship deal, though, was always a part-time endeavor, and certainly not on the level of Eric McClure’s deal with Hefty, Michael Annett’s deal with Pilot, or John Wes Townley’s deal with Zaxby’s, to name a few.
Getting back to Chastain, the move to BKR worked well for him and Keselowski. In 14 starts, Chastain earned seven top tens, including six in his last eight starts. He finished 18th in points, despite missing eight races, and went from also-ran to one of the top prospects in the Truck Series. So it came as a surprise to a lot of people when Chastain did not return to BKR in 2014. He instead spent the year bouncing around between the XFINITY Series, Truck Series, and K&N Pro East Division. It was not until 2015 that Chastain began racing full-time for JDM.
Chastain’s still young career is one of many that display the battle between money and talent in professional racing all over the world. His results with BKR suggest that he could challenge for a championship given the right equipment, much like Tyler Reddick did last year.
In the meantime, how Chastain performs with JD Motorsports will be the key to taking that next big step. It is not realistic to expect Chastain to go out and win races with an underfunded team. The NXS grid, however, cannot be separated into powerhouse organizations and those who are just taking up space on the track. If Chastain can show up each week, run the full race, and snag the occasional top ten as he did last year, that level of performance is worthy of being a professional race car driver.
Making the Chase would be a huge victory for Chastain. Defeating his competitors at Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and JR Motorsports to win the XFINITY title would be an all but impossible task, but all of those teams are expected to contend for the championship anyway. Just being in the show carries a lot more weight to a driver and team that did not expect to be there, and would raise the profile of both.
In essence, that is how Chastain has been able to maintain a presence in NASCAR. He has used every opportunity to not only perform well, but also to raise his own profile as a driver. By doing this, Chastain has developed a reputation as someone who is always improving. He is someone that can become a better driver with every step that he takes. Therefore, any team that takes a chance on him knows that they are getting a driver who can raise the team’s profile as well.
In Chastain’s case, that reputation is not unfounded. His career is proof that although sponsorship and connections matter a great deal in NASCAR, talent is not meaningless. Do not forgot that ten years ago, Chastain’s former boss, Brad Keselowski, was in the same boat, running underfunded equipment and searching for the right opportunity. Keselowski and Chastain have both proved that they can survive in NASCAR. If Chastain continues to defy expectations and raise his own profile, he may be the next one to thrive in NASCAR as Keselowski has done before him.