Ross Chastain has learned a lot since February at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That meant not only in getting set for a busier schedule in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but the sheer physicality of it all.
After running both Dover races in 2017, Chastain is looking at a heavy schedule in 2018 with Premium Motorsports. Thus far, he only missed the Daytona 500 in the first six races of 2018. The consistent track time will continue as Chastain plans to run for Premium in nearly all companion weekends this year, where both Cup and XFINITY run the same track on the same weekend.
Balancing his first long Cup season with his fourth full-time XFINITY season with JD Motorsports has been a fun challenge for the 25-year-old in 2018. He’s been a Class-A note-taker, a student of the team in the garage and a necessary risk-taker on the track.
Speaking with Frontstretch Saturday, March 24, at Martinsville Speedway, Chastain speaks his mind on the punishing nature of Cup cars, his appreciation for running on Sundays and what the biggest challenges have been running double duty.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Martinsville, your first short track in the Cup Series. When it comes to having a broader perspective of these Cup cars, how was it running?
Ross Chastain: It was running better than I was. It was a handful, and that’s how it should be, right? These things should be the hardest things in the world to drive and they (whew) pretty hard. I was a little caught off guard by how many laps it took me to get up to speed with the cold tires. I was overdriving a little bit.
Catanzareti: How about getting the power down? I bet there is so much more power in these things. Not only do you use more brake, I bet but getting on the throttle, you have to balance it.
Chastain: There is. Like I said when I was trying to get going that first run, I thought I was going to get the fence off [Turn] 4 a couple times, and didn’t… got fortunate there. It’s just a product of a lot of power, cold tires and a lot of weight. It’s definitely a big difference from the Truck Series, the biggest difference I have felt this year.
Catanzareti: Do you take notes out there? I don’t know how many veterans you were around.
Chastain: I saw some Cup guys do a couple things, and I changed my entry because of that. The main thing was, in my mind, to keep track of all that was going on. When I do come in, I can give good feedback to Pat [Tryson, crew chief] where he can make a productive change. Trying to actually remember what all is going on because these things are moving around a lot. I was just trying to hang on there.
Catanzareti: You know what its like to be with small teams, it’s been a long time. Here in Cup, is it more daunting when you see the Hendrick, Gibbs? You race them in XFINITY, but here is their bread and butter.
Chastain: Not really because they are so far removed from the program we have. Nothing is the same. How we do things versus how they do things. We’re building toward that. Premium has taken a big step this year from what we did last year. Mainly, I saw more when I stayed for every Cup race in the second half of last season last year. You can see so much more when you’re not working, not focused on driving.
Seeing where they were at last year and now this year, now being fully emerged in the program, being the guy for Premium — these guys have done it for so long, they’ve been coming in for so many years. I’m trying to absorb as much of that as I can; it’s been the biggest thing for me. I’m trying to be the guy who they can direct all their knowledge toward and try to go fast.
Catanzareti: Does having the team behind you make you as good a driver as the car does?
Chastain: Coming out of the Cup car and going back into XFINITY, it has helped me a ton. I know people don’t like that. My grandfather is one of them! He does not like it when Cup guys come back and run — Kyle Busch, right. So, when he comes down and gets into a Gibbs XFINITY car, it’s the best thing out there, he’s the best driver, I think. He goes fast and wins a lot of races. I know people don’t like that but it helps so much, it’s crazy. I’ve seen that and thought that, then I ran a couple Cup races last year.
Johnny Davis was the biggest guy this past year after we ran those two Dover races. He was pushing me every day, ‘Hey, what did you figure out with Jay [Robinson, team owner]? Hey, did you figure out a Cup deal? How many races? You need to get in it. Alright, you haven’t talked to Jay? OK, I’ll talk to Jay.’
He realized how big a deal it was for me to be running these things. And then it brought us more notoriety on the XFINITY side being I’ve made the transition from JD Motorsports. I’m still running there, claiming points, trying to make [the playoffs], but then going in and running the Cup race every week, they propelled me to do that.
With Landon [Cassill], they kind of did that, but Landon has already been running Cup. Granted, he gave him a good ride with Front Row Motorsports. Johhny took a lot of pride in that and he takes a lot of pride in me getting this ride with Premium.
Bouncing back and forth each weekend has been so much learning and it’s going to pay off one day for sure.
Catanzareti: Harrison Rhodes is here this weekend. You’ve known him for a long time. Seeing drivers like that getting these opportunities, it’s cool to see not only XFINITY guys get into Cup, but small XFINITY drivers get into Cup. How reinvigorating is that for you?
Chastain: Yeah, Harrison and I go way back. We both have been fighting this battle, not together, but fighting te same battle. He’s been at JD two different times. We’re not giving up. We’re just out here running our number and doing our thing, whatever we can. To use him as an example, [he’s very] detail-oriented and just motivated. It’s something that comes natural to us, which is a good thing.
It’s no different than you, man. You’re out here, you’ve been here, you’re doing this, you’re making it work. Same with us, it’s just that we get to go drive racecars. That’s what makes it worthwhile, seeing the progress.
I’ve been coming to Martinsville now every race, both spring and fall, since 2011… watching. I’ve been here every time mainly walking around on Saturday. I normally don’t stay for the Cup race. I would be here all day Saturday in the garage talking with every team owner I could, talked with Jay, crew guys, just to keep my face out there.
I was talking with Blake Koch yesterday. Stuff didn’t go well with him at Kaulig and he’s driver coaching. Seeing guys like Blake, Harrison, me, we put ourselves apart to where we eat, sleep and breathe this stuff, man. It’s all we want to do, a lot of people say that but putting the time and effort during the week and the offseason, preparing for a race way ahead of time. I’ve been building to running Cup for years.
Catanzareti: You have to be obsessed.
Chastain: It’s an addiction, man. You just have to keep pushing. As long as you’re trying, 100 people will say no, 100 team owners would say, ‘No, I don’t want you to drive.’ I’ve had team owners say, ‘You’re no good at driving, you have to go back growing watermelons’ when I got fired from a team. I just scuff it off, shake their hand and smile at them when I see them.
Catanzareti: That’s a good attitude. So, what’s your schedule with this team? Is it week-to-week or laid out?
Chastain: No, no. It started out we would go to Atlanta, probably Vegas. I bought a seat, had another seat made for this year knowing we would do some. I was going to have more ordered and before Atlanta when he told me I would run there, [he said], ‘No, just give it a few weeks. Let’s not spend a bunch of money. Easy, take it a little slower.’
Now, we got seats ordered. It’s the sign that it’s going well, right? He said we’re going to run a lot, all the companion races for sure. Basically the whole year. If somebody comes in and wants to run, then Jay will work that out with them. I’m here to help Premium keep growing. They’re helping me more than they could say, they’ve taught me so much.
I don’t want to come back to it but these guys have so much experience. They don’t even realize what they’re teaching me. They say things in conversation that is so casual how they say it and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m glad they said that because I didn’t know that would happen.’
You live and die by the details.
Catanzareti: You said something along the lines of that you’re the man of Premium Motorsports. For a while, they had Reed Sorenson. It’s good to have a consistent driver with a team. Do you feel you’re going to be that driver? Road courses, a pretty variable schedule here.
Chastain: Yeah, the road courses and superspeedways are still up in the air, to be honest. There are guys out there who are far ahead of where I’m at and who can help the team in a lot of ways by running those races. Having JJ [Yeley] here in the open car, I have no leverage with these guys.
With Johnny Davis, I’ve been there long enough I could influence and incorporate a lot of my ideas into the race team. Here, I’m the low man. I’m the newest guy. They tell me what we’re going to do. I push hard for the open car because — as soon as JJ got out of his car after first practice, I was waiting on him. I wanted to talk to him. He’s been here so many times I wanted to talk about his braking, getting through the corner, diamonding it, following the curb.
Same with Reed at California, just trying to see what these guys are doing. I may say I’m the guy for Premium, that could change. But I want to be the guy. I want to be the guy when Jay Robinson wakes up and the marketing team and all the different facets are working, they’re working to make Ross Chastain go fast in a racecar. If I could do that and still tie in JD, that’s what I want to do.
Catanzareti: Is this a great time in your life right now? You seem so happy right now.
Chastain: It is. I think it’s pretty cool that I’m 34th in practice and I’m still happy. A lot of people would get down on that but I know there is so much more speed in the car. I didn’t get enough of it, I didn’t know, I didn’t know where to brake.
I was a Jeff Gordon fan growing up and I know his first season, he put like 20 clips on the cars, he wrecked like 20 times in a season. I can’t do that. I can’t wreck twice, even once. Jay has been upfront with me [saying], ‘If you keep this car clean, we’ll keep doing this.’
Up until now, [knocks on the counter of team hauler] I have kept the car clean. Trying to manage all that is where I’ve been trying to minimize my mistakes.
Catanzareti: What is double duty like? It seems like such a packed schedule. You have interviews like this, practices with both series. Is it exhausting?
Chastain: I’m enjoying it. I’m happy, physically, how I’ve held up. I was worried when we sat down during the offseason about how I would hold up. Doubling up Fridays and Saturdays with practices, then the race on Saturday with XFINITY, then sleeping and running the Cup race Sunday … I was worried, to be honest.
We probably won’t see the effects of that until it gets hot. So far, I get out of the Cup car and I’m like, ‘I can go more. I honestly could.’ And I’m happy about that because I did do a lot of work this offseason personally to get ready.
I’m naturally a slim guy but I’m not that strong in a lot of ways. I’m trying not to get beach muscles like [Matt] DiBenedetto. He can go and probably bench press 1,000 pounds. I don’t need that. I need racecar muscles.
It sounds silly out loud but that’s what I focused on, trying to get myself prepared for where my back doesn’t start hurting in the car — I’ve had that, I’ve had issues. It was mainly when I didn’t have seats made for me, I was using other people’s seats.
Custom seats, it costs a bunch of money, but it’s so nice, so worth it. I’ve been here at Martinsville in the Truck Series in seats that, man, I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. I would get out after the race and my legs would be cramping, my back was cramping in the race just because it wasn’t built for you.
These guys have full-time, salary-paid interior guys. I used to laugh at them. I remember Chase Elliott when he first went to Daytona, they spent like 12 hours on his seat in the shop. Now I get it.
When I got out of the truck for Wendell [Chavous] at Atlanta after he got sick, nothing was right. I got out after that race and I was sore. I just ran the XFINITY race, felt fine, ran the Truck race, 100 laps maybe, and I told my guys, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to run tomorrow.’ I got my back worked on and felt good.
I’m 25 years old. I’m going to bounce back pretty well. But that’s not always going to be the case so I’m trying to put it to work now. They made power steering for guys like me. Guys like me are the reason we have super-sensitive wheels, super easy to turn. I’m not the guys with the big beach muscles.
Catanzareti: I drove a stock car last year with no headrest. It’s a short track and I was [bends head to the right].
Chastain: Oh yeah. I don’t know if I could do it. Growing up, same thing, didn’t have a headrest. I had a little aluminum seat. I never rested my head on anything until I got to NASCAR. Now, I’ve gone back and ran a couple short track races — my brother Chad races, I’ve practiced his truck on a Friday night, testing it.
He doesn’t have a headrest, he goes into the corner and leans his head left. And I got in the truck, didn’t even realize it, my head, same as you, it was leaned so far to the right. He’s younger than me and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I say, ‘I cant hold it!’ I’ve gotten so used to that headrest.
The cars now have so much more grip than they did 30, 40 years ago without headrests. Still, those guys were some big boys back then. They were animals. Bobby Allison is still built like a brick house.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Ross Chastain.)