Strategy has its ways in NASCAR’s top divisions. With the sport’s playoff system favoring triumphs, small teams have to make gutsy calls.
Ross Chastain knows this struggle all too well.
Chastain competes for JD Motorsports, a three-car team based in Gaffney, South Carolina, approximately one hour away from NASCAR’s focal area in Charlotte. The small squad is in the midst of its 15th year in NASCAR’s second-tier division, the XFINITY Series, led by team owner Johnny Davis.
For drivers like Chastain, the journey with this team is one that is different from others trying to make a name for themselves in NASCAR. Rather than bringing money to the table, Davis bases his driver line-up off individuals he believes are talented and have the potential to grow into a star.
“This sport is very tough and grueling,” Chastain said. “There were points last year and the year before where I was like this isn’t fun anymore. Why am I doing this?”
Chastain is just one dozens of young drivers trying to make a name for themselves in the NASCAR realm, attempting to showcase his abilities in equipment not capable of competing for wins due to a lack of funding. In doing so, the Florida native is still flying on cloud nine after a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May that opened up many to the capabilities of his No. 4 team thanks to a key strategic call from crew chief Bryan Berry.
“We pitted early, and we pitted when no one else did under caution,” Chastain recalled. “I was hoping it would go green. I thought if it went 50-60 laps and we have to all make a full fuel run, we’re going to be sitting really pretty. They all had at least 20 laps on our tires, so we had brand new tires – us and the [No.] 6 car.
“We had to stop anyway. We were hitting the racetrack, so we put a packer in the front to keep it off the ground. The caution came right back out, and I was like they have to pit now. They only had about 15 laps before they had to pit for fuel.”
When the majority of the lead lap cars pitted, it put Chastain out front. Instead of pitting before the green flag waved once again, Berry opted to keep him out, testing the abilities of the car and himself.
Chastain restarted side-by-side with Darrell Wallace, Jr., who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, one of the larger teams in the XFINITY Series. The difference in funding for a full season between the two teams? Approximately four to six times the amount of sponsorship and other resources being fueled into helping get new parts and pieces to make the cars go faster.
“New leader, No. 4,” spotter Earl Barban said over the team’s radio for the first time.
Barban is six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson’s spotter on Sunday’s, and he has been working with Chastain for several years. However, the emphasis on the No. 4 Dream Water Chevrolet instead of the No. 48 Chevrolet from Barban was a new sound to NASCAR fans.
“I was like holy moly,” Chastain said. “We only had a handful – less than 10 laps – on our tires. We definitely weren’t pitting. I knew that. On the restart before, I started behind him back in the pack and he spun his tires pretty bad when we went into third gear. I thought he would be better this time.
“Sure enough, when we went to go, I don’t know if he spun them, but I kind of anticipated it. By the time we got to Turn 1, I couldn’t even see him in my outside window, but I could tell he was there because he was side-drafting me pretty hard. We raced and everybody saw that.”
While Chastain eventually slipped back to finish 17th that day, the exposure he gained far exceeded any he would have received for another day running in 10th to 15th.
Not only was it the first time at a non-restrictor plate track that a JD Motorsports car had shown the strength to compete in the top 5 — even passing Richard Childress Racing’s Ty Dillon at one time — it brought a sense of accomplishment to a team that basks on making it to the track using spare/used parts from bigger, better teams.
“Johnny and I never thought we’d be doing all this,” Chastain said. “It’s what it takes. We’re investing in ourselves and at the same time, making our partners happy.”
Along with Dream Water, JD Motorsports’ largest sum of income from a sponsor is Flex Seal, which is continuously on at least one of its racecars on a yearly basis. The company, frequently seen selling products at gas stations, is on Chastain’s car for the ninth time this season for this coming weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.
“It was always Landon, Landon, Landon,” Chastain said half-jokingly. “As the [No.] 4 car kept gaining momentum and this year, they were like we want to be on Ross’ car. I was like, ‘sweet. This is awesome.’ When I came to this team, I can’t really describe how much it was explained to me that I’m the [No.] 4 car. Don’t tear up the car because we’re going to use this car next week. Now, we have a rotation of cars and new cars.”
Though Chastain and Co. have bringing on new partners, the struggle continues for JD Motorsports. Preece has the team’s lone top-10 result of the year, a 10th-place finish at Darlington Raceway.
Chastain came short of making the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase by more than a race-and-a-half margin.
With three races left in the year, Chastain’s future is uncertain. He is constantly reminded of the memories he has competing for wins at Brad Keselowski Racing, along with other opportunities he’s had throughout his NASCAR career.
“I finally have a team that surrounds me that’s invested in me,” he said. “They want me to be their guy, and now I am. We don’t want to be the underdog forever. We’ve been the underdog for so long that we want to be the big dog in this park.”
Chastain continues to question himself to this day. As his No. 4 team is bringing new companies into the sport to fund his efforts, the job security is not there, nor is the answer of if and when a larger organization will sign him to take the wheel and race one of their cars.