Did You Notice? … Ross Chastain picked the wrong NASCAR series in 2019? Of course, he didn’t know it at the time after a devastating end to his tenure at Chip Ganassi Racing. Chastain was all set for a competitive full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series ride before DC Solar found itself raided by the FBI.
That left Chastain unemployed at a difficult time, less than two months before Daytona International Speedway. Rides for top-tier teams in all three series were already set; limited sponsorship left just a handful of options available. He wound up with the safe choice, coming home to JD Motorsports, whose underdog No. 4 ride gave him the platform to rise in the first place.
It was with that team where Chastain overachieved for over four full-time seasons. His 2018 was reminiscent of the 2019 success Ryan Sieg is having in that series — a postseason run with an organization that had no business being there on paper. Chastain kept up with top-tier teams and drivers despite having a quarter of the funding. When he did get a better audition, a part-time reward with CGR led to a September victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
So the decision to go home felt right. After all, where do most people head after a traumatic experience in life like a breakup, death, job loss or financial hardship? JD Motorsports was family to Ross, and they welcomed him back with open arms. Blake Koch stepped aside for Chastain’s return, and the No. 4 ride (along with a part-time gig with Kaulig Racing) seemed the perfect place to rebuild.
A deal with Niece Motorsports to run NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series seemed second-rate by comparison. The multi-truck program had struggled with both sponsorship and consistency in its two-year existence; 77 starts hadn’t produced a single top-five result. Full-time driver Justin Fontaine had just chosen retirement and a future in politics instead of staying with the program.
Who could blame Chastain for choosing to run for the Xfinity Series title?
But the reality is the safe choice was also the wrong one. We have the first real instance of NASCAR’s rule limiting drivers to points in one series potentially costing an up-and-coming driver championship hardware. Chastain’s Xfinity tenure with JD Motorsports has felt like returning to a cancelled show six months after the lights turned off. There wasn’t enough time to rebuild, and both sides had already decided to move on without each other.
Two DNFs in 10 NXS starts this season leaves Chastain with an average finish of just 17.1, nearly two positions off his 2018 total. He’s earned just one top-10 finish, at Las Vegas in March, and sits 13th in the standings, some 42 points out of the final spot. All drivers ahead of him except Sieg have far more engineering and financial support.
Compare that to Niece, where Chastain’s raw talent has injected fresh energy into a fledgling program. He started off with a third at Daytona, producing the best finish Niece ever had, and hasn’t taken his foot off the gas. Seven races into the season, Chastain’s the only driver with top-10 finishes in all seven truck races. Friday’s (May 10) win at Kansas Speedway would have locked him into the postseason if he was running for points in that division.
In fact, Chastain wouldn’t just be locked in. He’d be second in the standings, just eight behind Grant Enfinger for the series lead.
POINTS CHASTAIN WOULD HAVE EARNED: 2019 TRUCK SERIES
Daytona: 34 (third + no stage points)
Atlanta: 36 (sixth + five stage points)
Las Vegas: 41 (10th + 14 stage points)
Martinsville: 49 (fourth + 16 stage points and one playoff point for a stage win)
Texas: 37 (seventh + seven stage points)
Dover: 28 (10th + one stage point)
Kansas: 54 (Win + 14 stage points and five playoff points)
TOTAL: 279 (six playoff points)
Only Johnny Sauter (seven) would have more playoff points than Chastain. It’s clear he’d be right in the thick of the championship hunt.
But NASCAR doesn’t allow for do-overs, and frankly, I don’t know if they should. The whole reason we have this rule is so Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers don’t run for championships in other series. Without it, Kyle Busch, four-for-four in his Truck Series starts, would be inside the top eight in points despite missing three races. Chastain (who, by the way, is the Frontstretch podcast guest tomorrow) is the rare exception who gets hurt.
But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. He, along with Niece, has got to be wondering what might have been. At least the underdog is still getting well-deserved recognition in an incredible year: he’s yet to miss a start in any of NASCAR’s top three series.
Did You Notice? … William Byron is now fourth on the depth chart at Hendrick Motorsports? Three second-place finishes by Alex Bowman after a rugged start have now left this HMS sophomore last on the bench.
It’s not that Byron hasn’t improved this season. He earned his first career pole at the Daytona 500, leading 44 laps and contending before wrecking out late. His 92 laps led have already eclipsed last season’s total, and two top-10 finishes leave him on pace for six, also an increase from last year.
But Byron also remains without a top-five finish and outside the playoff picture looking in. He’s doing so while Bowman has taken NASCAR nation by storm the past three weeks and Chase Elliott has broken into the winner’s circle. Jimmie Johnson, one might argue, has been just as inconsistent as Byron. But he’s higher in the standings and has already collected five top-10 finishes, one short of what Byron has for his entire career. Johnson’s seven titles also buy him a little extra leeway, I’d say.
New crew chief Chad Knaus was supposed to fix this No. 24 team, rebounding from his Johnson divorce and grooming another young talent. But you know where Knaus is next Saturday? In the FOX booth as the lone crew chief for the Driver’s Only Broadcast. Former HMS talent is littered all over FOX and NBC, and rumors (denied) just won’t die that Knaus is headed for the less rigorous booth at some point.
Could his driver’s performance be the deciding factor? It feels like the next three months are more critical for this 21-year-old than any other HMS employee. The car number Byron’s driving was once occupied by Jeff Gordon, a similar phenom who he suffers perhaps unfair comparisons to. But Gordon started climbing to super stardom in his second season, winning twice and finishing in the top 10 in points. There was a clear understanding by the end of 1994 Hendrick had landed a generational talent.
We’ve yet to see that click for Byron, who came up to this series with a better NASCAR resume: 11 wins in 57 starts running Xfinity and Trucks. He’s also struggling to recreate that success entering a critical phase for his Hendrick program. No one knows how much longer Johnson is going to race; he’s signed through 2020. And HMS just lost Tyler Reddick, the reigning Xfinity champ who jumped from JR Motorsports when he felt there was no upward mobility.
You’d think that would help Byron’s cause. But there could also be top talent available this summer. Christopher Bell is certainly searching for a 2020 Cup opportunity. Kyle Larson is entering a do-or-die phase, it seems, with Ganassi that could make him available. Even Chastain might be someone Hendrick is willing to take a chance on talent-wise.
It seems unthinkable at this point their availability would leave Byron in trouble. But who would have thought Joe Gibbs Racing would give Daniel Suarez less than two years? The free agency of Martin Truex Jr. wound up being too good to pass up. And Suarez was handed a far more difficult hand (late, unexpected promotion) than Byron.
It all adds up to extra pressure over at the No. 24 team. We’ll see how Byron responds.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- We went from 30 trucks (with start and parks) on an entry list to 37 in just one week for the Truck Series. What’s the difference? The race is at Charlotte Motor Speedway, home base for most teams on the circuit. Travel costs money, and it’s an indicator that should have NASCAR considering more regional schedule changes for this division in 2021.
- Only 15 drivers are automatically qualified for the Monster Energy All-Star Race Saturday night (May 18). But doesn’t it seem like smaller is better for a race that’s supposed to celebrate a select few? When over half the field participates in an exhibition designed for the sport’s “best,” is it really an All-Star Race?