Ross Chastain has had quite the eventful week. It began with a strong run in the Daytona 500 that ended in a multi-car wreck in the closing laps and concluded Sunday (Feb. 23) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where another good performance went awry late in the race. With six laps to go, Chastain looped the No. 6 car around on the backstretch, triggering a caution and setting up the final restart that decided the event.
Of course, how Ross Chastain wound up in the No. 6 car in the first place was the result of the past week’s biggest story. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, Ryan Newman was involved in a major accident while racing for the win. The crash sent Newman to the hospital in serious condition, but the veteran racer was able to walk out with a smile on his face and daughters by his side just a few days later. While Newman continues to recover, Roush Fenway Racing brought on Chastain as his substitute.
As of this writing, there is no timetable for Newman’s return. At the very least, Chastain should be driving the No. 6 car for at least a few more weeks. But no matter how many NASCAR Cup Series races that Chastain winds up running for RFR, he is sure to have a lot of eyes on him. How Chastain performs during his limited Cup Series runs could have major implications for what promises to be an interesting Silly Season over the next year.
It’s not the case Ross Chastain is intriguing because he’s brand new to the Cup Series. In fact, Sunday’s race was his 73rd start at NASCAR’s highest level. Instead, these next performances will matter more because of what equipment he’s in. Perhaps Roush Fenway Racing has seen better days as a team, but the organization is clearly stronger than Premium Motorsports, for whom Chastain has made the vast majority of his Cup starts. Newman himself has done an admirable job in the past year of helping RFR return to competitive form; they’ve made the playoffs twice in the last three seasons. As a result, Chastain will have good equipment from an established team with stable sponsorship at his disposal. That’s a combination the Florida native has enjoyed far too little in his career.
Up until now, Chastain’s best equipment has come under the auspices of Chip Ganassi Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He made the most of those limited opportunities and earned his first Xfinity win at Las Vegas about a year and a half ago. For 2019, Chastain and CGR had planned on pursuing the Xfinity title full-time. Unfortunately for them, Chastain’s main sponsor, DC Solar, was not conducting business on the up-and-up. One FBI raid later, the company shut down and Ganassi had to fold its NXS team due to lack of funding. Just like that, Chastain’s best chance to really show his skills was gone.
Losing the Ganassi ride was no doubt a tough blow, but Chastain still made the most of his 2019 season. Driving for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, he won three races, clawed his way into the playoffs, and advanced all the way to the championship event. While he came up short of winning the title, Chastain accomplished quite a lot for an organization that previously had no track record of success in NASCAR. Today, Chastain is responsible for all three of Niece’s wins, 10 of its 11 top fives, and 20 of its 29 top 10s.
This season, Chastain is back in the Xfinity Series. His day job is with Kaulig Racing, for whom he won a race last year while competing part-time. In all likelihood, Chastain should qualify for the Xfinity playoffs and will probably reach victory lane a few times before the season ends.
However, filling in for Newman could have a bigger impact on Chastain’s future than whatever he accomplishes in the Xfinity Series. Based on his work with Niece Motorsports, and JD Motorsports before that, several Cup Series teams are rumored to be following Chastain’s progress. Ganassi is one organization who would clearly like to have him back. Hendrick Motorsports, too, will need to find a replacement for Jimmie Johnson. And if Chastain turns in some good runs with the No. 6 car, he is sure to grab the attention of a few other teams.
If there is one thing that has held Chastain back, it is a lack of sponsorship. Although he is considerably more established in NASCAR than a few years ago, Chastain has never found that one company that is willing to shoulder the financial burden of funding a racing team. With costs higher than ever in NASCAR, those who don’t bring financial support are more liable to get left on the sidelines. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the business, and it’s why the fall of Chastain’s previous sponsor was so disappointing.
Yet as long as Chastain is subbing for Newman, sponsorship concerns are off the table. If he can put together some good finishes, it will be the most concrete proof yet of what many in the garage have suspected – that Chastain has the capability to race and win in the Cup Series. Sunday’s race at Las Vegas did not end well, but that was only round one for Chastain and the No. 6 team.
If he can close out the next few races better, Ross Chastain could be several steps closer to securing his big career break by the time Newman comes back.
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— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) February 24, 2020