1. Ross Chastain Secures a Second Chance
Ross Chastain‘s career has finally come full circle with Chip Ganassi Racing. Almost two years after his career nearly collapsed, the team announced Sept. 21 Chastain will drive its No. 42 full time in the NASCAR Cup Series beginning with the 2021 Daytona 500.
The move ends a zigzag path for Chastain since first partnering with CGR in 2018. He wrecked Kevin Harvick in his first Xfinity Series start with the team at Darlington Raceway, turning heads after winning the pole. In his second start two weeks later, he cruised to a 1.6-second victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The watermelon farmer-turned career NASCAR underdog was in position to finally cash in on his dreams.
Too bad sponsor DC Solar was busy cashing in on a Ponzi scheme. An offseason FBI raid that uncovered $1 billion in fraud cost CGR its sponsor and Chastain a ride for 2019. Scrambling, he wound up with underfunded Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, a team that earned a grand total of three top-10 finishes before he arrived.
Well, Chastain ended the year with three wins, taking that truck to the precipice of a title. To do so, he had to start from zero points midseason after declaring for the championship late, won multiple times after an initial victory was disqualified in post-race inspection at Iowa Speedway and practically begged for sponsorship money week to week. The way he performed with his back against the wall each and every race is one of the most impressive NASCAR drives of the past 10 years. Just look at Niece’s team in 2020 to show how much Chastain brings to the table; it missed the playoffs and has a grand total of just one top-five finish when he’s not in the truck.
This year has been an unexpected step back with Kaulig Racing, an up-and-coming NXS outfit. Chastain remains winless and has made a few mistakes, most notably spinning out teammate AJ Allmendinger while battling for the win last month at Daytona International Speedway. But his 23 top-10 finishes lead the series, keeping him in title contention, and were enough for CGR to offer a second chance.
“The faith he and the organization showed me back in 2018 was a real turning point in my career,” Chastain said in announcing the move. “I am extremely happy for the chance to join the team again, especially with all the great guys they have on the [No.] 42 and to be able to team with a champion like Kurt Busch. Racing in the Cup Series with a serious contender has always been my goal, and I’m looking forward to joining what is a very strong team.”
Can Chastain be a Cup playoff contender in 2021? Why not? This year’s Cup rookie of the year, Cole Custer, squeaked in with a surprise victory in July at Kentucky Speedway. Chastain is stepping into an arguably better situation with a team, once led by Kyle Larson, that has won consistently on the Cup level. Don’t bet against a guy who’s spent his career making chicken salad out of… you know the rest.
“We just gotta win,” Chastain said after wrecking Allmendinger at Daytona. “I did everything right to be the best teammate I could. Last lap, I don’t back down, and I’m going to go for it.”
It’s the same mentality new teammate Busch used to muscle to the front in his younger days. And it’s an aggression Ganassi’s looking for after spending the year running 20th with Matt Kenseth. If anyone’s going to get him over the hump and into the Championship 4 these next few years, Chastain is it.
2. Kevin Harvick’s Record-Setting Season
Harvick kept right on chugging Saturday night, outdueling Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway for his career-high ninth win of the Cup season. It was his second win in the first three NASCAR playoff races; he starts the next round with a 62-point gap over the cutline. That’s more than a full race’s worth of points.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how special this year has been for Harvick, especially at this point in his career. Since then? He’s only picked up the pace. Bristol’s victory set a single-season, modern-era record for Cup wins from a driver his age or older (44).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consider:
- One more victory (10) would make Harvick just the second Cup driver this century to reach double-digit victories (Jimmie Johnson, 2007). Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace are the only others to win 10 or more in a season since 1985.
- Harvick has completed 7,922 of 7,924 laps. If that continues, it will easily be the highest percentage of laps completed for a driver who’s run all the races in a season. He’s finished off the lead lap only twice, during a two-race June slump (by his standards, at least) at Martinsville Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
- His average finish of 6.2 is on track to be the best in the Cup Series since Gordon in 1998. Gordon tied the modern-era record of 13 victories that year and won the title under the old points system by 364 over Mark Martin.
- Harvick’s lead in the standings without the playoffs would be even larger than Gordon’s. He’d lead Hamlin by 167, a gap so large the guy could sit out three races and still sit on top. Hamlin would need three wins plus an average of 16 stage points a race to catch him.
The accolades keep on coming for one of the best seasons in modern NASCAR history. One thing’s crystal clear: Hamlin is no longer a co-title favorite. Anything less than a championship from Harvick and the No. 4 team at this point would be a major disappointment.
3. Joey Logano Sticking His Nose In
I see you, Joey Logano. The driver of the No. 22 Ford stuck his nose into the finish at Bristol more than any of the Joey Gase-type lapped cars Kyle Busch was complaining about. Harvick’s final pass for the lead was a direct result of Logano holding up Busch on the outside line.
“He’s nobody’s friend for a reason,” Busch said afterward. “So there you have it.”
Is it really any surprise though these drivers still don’t like each other? After all, we’re just three years removed from their all-out brawl at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, of all places, this weekend’s track. (Oh, the memories).
But while ticking Busch off may have felt good for Logano in the moment, was it really the right long-term move? Harvick, not Busch, is the bigger rival for the championship, and that win gifted him five more playoff points. It also adds yet another driver to a growing list of people who owe him one.
Remember Martin Truex Jr.? Knocking Truex out of the way at Martinsville Speedway is how Logano sparked his run to the championship in 2018. Have they really gotten even? And how about years of antipathy with Denny Hamlin? Or contact with Chase Elliott down the stretch while fighting for the Bristol win in May? Even teammate Brad Keselowski has a beef this year after Logano wrecked him in the season-opening Busch Clash.
That type of track record catches up with you over time. Keep in mind Logano is still a darkhorse title contender this year, especially since he won at Championship 4 track Phoenix Raceway back in March. Why put yourself at risk unnecessarily with Martinsville’s race in the Round of 8 still to come?
Hard to see him making it through that one unscathed.
4. Keeping It Clean
Martinsville, at this rate, is going to have myriad cautions based on the law of averages. Bristol followed a 2020 trend of unusually clean races defined by long green-flag runs.
Bristol’s night race had just five cautions, the fewest for any race at the track since 2012. In fact, it’s just the third time this speedway’s had five cautions since 1984. Keep in mind those other races didn’t have competition yellows and stage breaks; only three cautions for incidents flew the whole night.
That follows a bizarre Richmond Raceway event that ran the equivalent of caution free under the sport’s stage racing format. The events were exciting in both cases, but also felt like they were missing something. Aren’t short tracks supposed to be about bumping? Fender-rubbing, tires smoking, frayed tempers and roughed-up sheetmetal?
It’s hard to argue with the ending in both races. I just feel like we’re getting the finishes we need on intermediate-style tracks crammed into a half-mile oval instead.
5. Give Credit Where Credit’s Due
Finally this week, a quick shout-out to four surprises in the top 10 this week. Tyler Reddick had just the third top-five finish of his Cup career, a fourth, with impressive long-run speed for Richard Childress Racing. That team is putting itself in position to win races on a regular basis come 2021.
Sitting eighth was Chris Buescher, earning just his seventh top 10 in a lost year for Roush Fenway Racing. Michael McDowell, back in 10th, has now doubled his career high for top-10 runs in a season (four). It’s a remarkable run for a guy who Front Row Motorsports almost didn’t retain for 2020.
But the attaboy award has to go to Ryan Preece finally getting off the schneid with a ninth-place result. Preece, who’s had more bad luck in a year with JTG Daugherty Racing than most have in a decade, is the final driver with a fully funded team to earn a top 10 this season. It likely won’t be enough to save his ride in 2021, but for one of the sport’s good guys, the Connecticut native could at least crack a smile for one night. Even if he finishes the year with seven more runs like that, he can only end with the same number of top 10s (eight) as DNFs.
P.S. – The Denny Hamlin Cup Series team – Bubba Wallace announcement broke just as this column was being posted. Check back Wednesday for full analysis of the move in Did You Notice?.