Prior to Saturday’s Sport Clips VFW 200, Brad Keselowski had never led a lap in six XFINITY Series starts at Darlington Raceway. He was in the right place at the right time to capture his first victory at the famed racetrack.
Keselowski started the race from ninth position, though not gaining much traction during the first stage, finishing eighth.
After pitting under the stage break, and getting a couple good restarts, Keselowski drove up to second, where he’d end the stage in. But stage three is where the action picked up.
With less than 40 laps to go, Ross Chastain and Kevin Harvick were battling for the lead, though making contact off Turn 2. While those two drivers crashed and had major damage, Keselowski was able to get by, where he’d lead the final 35 laps.
“I tried to make the move to get by him [Chastain] and I just brushed the wall and him and Kevin got back by me and then they had their issue off of [Turn] 2 and were just so strong that we pounced on it and took advantage of the opportunity,” Keselowski said in Victory Lane “That’s a testament to this team. I drove five races this year and we’ve won three of them. That’s pretty darn good and I’m really proud of that.”
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 1, 2018
Chip Ganassi Racing announced last week that they had signed on Ross Chastain for three races (Darlington, Las Vegas and Richmond), hoping to give him a shot at the championship. On Saturday, the Florida native, watermelon farmer, proved he belonged, wheeling the No. 42 car around Darlington Raceway, winning the first two stages.
Chastain, who scored his first-career pole, led more laps in the opening 17 circuits than his previous 129 races (whole career) combined in the XFINITY Series. He wasn’t done there, as he’d lead all 45 laps and score a playoff point in stage one.
Stage two was much of the same, with Chastain pacing the field. Kevin Harvick got around the No. 42 Chevrolet, but on a restart Brad Keselowski shoved the hell out of Chastain, pushing him to the lead. He would lead the remainder of the stage, picking up another playoff point.
However, the final stage was very different, as Chastain was in contention for his first series victory. With less than 40 laps to go, Harvick had a run underneath the No. 42 car, as they were three-wide making a pass on Chad Finchum, who was a car off the pace. The two leaders collided off Turn 2, in which Chastain pounded the wall, only to intentionally turn the No. 98 machine down the back stretch.
Here's what happened between Ross Chastain and Kevin Harvick.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 1, 2018
After the contact, Harvick was none-to-pleased, and called out Chastain.
“That’s just a really inexperienced racer and a really bad move there and got the air and got on beside me and just kept going up the race track,” Harvick said. “I couldn’t do anything with the wheel. You’ve got a really inexperienced guy in a really fast car and made a really bad move, and then wrecked me down the back straightaway and hooked me to the right. That’s probably the reason that he’ll never get to drive many of them again.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Harvick’s comments (via my Twitter timeline, everyone disagrees), Darlington is as much as Chastain’s track, as it is the former champion’s. Sure, the No. 42 may have rode Harvick’s door, but it’s for the win with the race winding down, weaving in-and-out of lapped traffic.
In fact, upon exiting the corner, Chastain had already hit the wall. It’s just a bad deal that could have been avoided, but two hard-nose racers saw a checkered flag coming soon, and went for it.
While Harvick retired from the race, finishing 29th, Chastain tried to continue on but a left rear tire rub caused him to bring the No. 42 down pit road and go two laps down. He finished a disappointing 25th.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Chastain said of the opportunity. “I felt like I was holding my own, learned a lot on the restarts with them and was really happy to be out there racing with them up until that points… It’s so crazy how fun that was to drive… I still have a long way to go, but just thankful for the opportunity.”
When asked if he thought he was racing Harvick too aggressively, he didn’t dodge the question.
“I’m just trying to race. I’ll have to see the film,” Chastain said. “If I made a mistake, it’s on me. As the leader there, i was just trying to race. We gave each other room all day, it’s unfortunate.”
Though Chastain didn’t get the win that he probably deserved, the No. 42 was out front for a race-high 90 laps, earning 20 stage points and two playoff points. He also gained a position in points, now sitting 11th, and for the first time since March isn’t on, or around the cut-line with two races remaining in the regular season.
Harvick may not have been happy with the outcome, but many of Chastain’s fellow NASCAR competitors were thrilled to see him run up front and get the opportunity of a lifetime.
We (fans, media, competitors, team owners) were all able to evaluate Ross much better watching him out run Cup regulars for majority of that race. You don’t get that on a stand alone event. More opportunities will come his way now from his performance against Cup guys.
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) September 1, 2018
This is so cool. What a story today has been for @RossChastain. Gets a great opportunity and is making the best of it. ?
— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) September 1, 2018
•Ross proved today that some exceptional talent is mired and often not noticed when competing in sub par equipment.
•Cup guys SHOULD be able to run Xfinity in limited quantity (10~ races imo)
•Cutting the field size to 36 cars is a GREAT CALL
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) September 1, 2018
NASCAR proved prior to Saturday’s XFINITY race that if a team fails pre-qualifying inspection more than three times, they ain’t playing around any more.
Brandon Jones‘ car failed inspection four times prior to being cleared for the grid. However, the No. 19 car was ineligible to turn a qualifying lap. That wasn’t the only penalty for the team.
The car chief of the No. 19 car was ejected from the premises, while the team lost 10 drivers and owners points. As soon as the green flag waved, Jones would then have to serve a pass through penalty. Oh, and Next week at Indy, the team will have a 30-minute practice hold and a loss of pit stall selection.
#19 of Brandon Jones in NXS failed pre-qualifying inspection 4 times.
•Car chief ejected
•Cannot qualify today
•Loss of 10 owner & driver points
•Serve pass through penalty after green flag
•Loss of pit selection & 30-min practice hold next week at Indy
— Jayski.com (@jayski) September 1, 2018
Over the past couple of years, teams in the Truck, XFINITY and Cup Series’ have had problems getting through tech inspection, trying to take advantage of the system. But this penalty proves that the consequences are down right nasty, though necessary.
In other forms of racing, tech penalties are much stiffer, and Jones may have been made an example out of at Darlington. Now, lets see how many teams push the envelope, as there is hell to pay shall a team fail more than three times.
Though Jones was in the hole from the start, an early caution allowed the No. 19 to take the free pass. On lap 77, he’d spin off Turn 2, but would drive the car back through the field to finish 12th.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles this whole weekend really with our penalties that we had yesterday night,” he said after the race. “We had to overcome a couple things on pit road there. We had to come from the back a couple times, so I think to drive up through the field especially at Darlington, a place where it’s really tough to pass, says a lot about how good our race car was.”
With the finish, Jones clinched a spot into the playoffs.
Another race, another dismal finish for the Roush Fenway Racing No. 60 machine, this time by Austin Cindric, in what was his last scheduled start for the team this year.
Cindric had one of his better qualifying efforts in nine starts with the No. 60 team in 11th. But it only took until lap 2 when Ryan Truex dumped Cindric off Turn 4, crashing hard into the inside wall.
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) September 1, 2018
” It was just one of those racing deals,” Cindric said of the incident. “It’s hard for the spotters to see off of [Turn] 4, but either somebody cleared themselves up too early or, I mean, we were right by the wall so there’s nothing I can do.
“I get turned on and plug the fence two laps into the race. I’m really frustrated about that. I’m frustrated that this is my last race with the 60 car. This team has worked really, really hard and has nothing to show for it. It’s a bummer to end on this kind of a note, but we’ll keep moving and keep fighting.”
In nine races in the No. 60 car, Cindric had an average finish of 27.1 with a best finish of 13th at Watkins Glen International. In 15 starts for Team Penske, he has seven top-10 finishes.
Following the incident, Cindric was very emotional, in tears, in fact. Not because he was hurt — though it was a hard hit — the No. 60 car has had absolutely no luck this season. In 24 races, the team has been involved in 19 incidents, meaning the car must be cursed.
Emotions pour out. pic.twitter.com/ESQeTPX4Ll
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) September 1, 2018
In its first season back of full-time competition since 2015, the No. 60 car sits 22nd in the owner standings, below the likes of underfunded teams such as the No. 51 of Jeremy Clements Racing, No. 39 team of RSS Racing, No. 36 of DGM Racing and No. 35 of Go Green Racing.
Underdog Performance of the Race
For the second consecutive season at Darlington, the back half of the top 20 was filled with teams that don’t have the budgets to compete for wins, though staying out of trouble and getting respectable finishes. However, Landon Cassill stands out, though he has a ton of experience in NASCAR, made his return to JD Motorsports for a one-race deal, and ran inside the top 20 all race long, in a car that has three top 20s all year long, all on restrictor plate tracks.
Cassill began the race in 21st, by far the best qualifying effort for the No. 01 team this season. The JDM team raced in and around the top 20 the entire race, finishing 16th in stage one. In stage two the team dropped a few positions, crossing the line in 19th.
Meanwhile, Cassill stayed out of trouble in the final stage and on a long green flag run to the finish managed his tires to finish 14th. It’s the best finish for the No. 01 team this season (previously a 17th-place finish by Vinnie Miller), and it was his first race in the series since 2015, when he drove for the same team in 29 races.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) September 1, 2018
Prior to Ross Chastain standing out at JD Motorsports, Cassill received a ton of praise for getting the most out of a severely underfunded race team. On throwback weekend, the Iowa native proved he’s still got it.
Double Duty Interlopers
Brad Keselowski scored the aforemtnioned victory, which checks off one of the few tracks on the circuit he had yet to win at. The 2010 series champion has now never won at four tracks in which he has starts at — Daytona, Atlanta, Auto Club and Road America.
Denny Hamlin came into the race as the defending race winner, but the No. 18 Toyota never hit its stride this year at Darlington. He was the only other Cup driver to finish in the top five.
Chase Elliott came from the back after getting loose in qualifying to finish sixth.
In a one-off appearance for JD Motorsports, Landon Cassill finished 14th. Other Cup drivers in the field finished outside the top 15, led by Joey Gase in 21st. B.J. McLeod finished 23rd, Ross Chastain 25th, Kevin Harvick 29th and Timmy Hill 35th.
“We really made up a lot of ground, but then flirting with that wall, we finally hit it.” – Denny Hamlin
“I felt like we were in a great spot to compete for a win there and unfortunately it just didn’t work out.” – Christopher Bell
“It just shows the level of respect some guys race with and it’s tough. It bothers me a lot, but you’ve got to keep fighting. You can’t give up.” – Austin Cindric
Darlington was Ross Chastain’s coming out party, proving to the fans what many people inside the realm of NASCAR already knew; he’s one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR, and has been for a long time.
The feel-good story was spoiled by a miscue with a former Cup Series champion, though after the race Chastain handled the adversity with class, while Harvick…. not so much.
This won’t boil over to the Cup race on Sunday, and likely won’t be thought about ever again. Fellow Chip Ganassi Racing driver Justin Marks said it perfectly on Twitter. Everyone deserves a shot, and it’s time some sponsors and race teams invest in younger talent, giving them the opportunity to compete with the big teams.
This @RossChastain performance is proof that NXS sponsors don’t need a Harvick/BK/Hamlin et al to run up front and be a compelling story among the fans/media. #NamesAreMadeHere Need to invest in YOUNG TALENT!!!
— Justin Marks (@JustinMarksDG) September 1, 2018
The XFINITY Series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway next weekend, where William Byron is the defending winner, edging out Paul Menard at the finish line. For the second consecutive season the restrictor plate package will be utilized, which led to arguably the best series race at Indy since debuting at the track in 2012.
About the author
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.