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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Ross Chastain Loving Quiet Cup Arrival at Chip Ganassi Racing

It was a cool January night when the picture capturing Chip Ganassi’s past, present and future was taken.

The image, posted on Chip Ganassi Racing’s Twitter profile Jan. 17, shows the 62-year-old standing in an open pit cabana at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. He’s flanked by eight mask-wearing men who have or will compete for him in NASCAR or IndyCar.

The picture’s caption: “#ChipLikesWinners.”

Plenty of wins were represented. Scott Dixon’s 50 wins and six titles in the NTT IndyCar Series. Jimmie Johnson’s 83 wins and seven NASCAR Cup Series titles. Dario Franchitti’s 31 open-wheel wins, four titles and three Indianapolis 500 victories. Kurt Busch’s 41 NASCAR national series wins, 2004 Cup title and 2017 Daytona 500 victory.

Even though they’re wearing masks, you’d be forgiven if you somehow overlooked Ross Chastain standing between Johnson and Franchitti.

For Chastain, a 28-year-old driver who has 361 starts and five wins in NASCAR, being included in the photo op with “guys I grew up watching and idolizing” meant “everything.”

“It was the best snapshot, literally, of all the work from starting out in fast kid division at my local track to running my first [Camping World] Truck [Series] race, Xfinity [Series], Cup, doing whatever I had to do: start and parking,” Chastain tells Frontstretch. “The goal was to drive, I don’t know for who, but for somebody. …

“It’s just the culmination of all the work into one picture.”

Chastain’s work toward this moment, from start-and-parker to full-time Chip Ganassi Racing driver in the Cup Series, hit its biggest roadblock on Dec. 18, 2018.

That’s the day the FBI and the IRS chose to raid the California home and offices of Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, the founders and owners of DC Solar.

The raids led to the revelation that DC Solar, a primary sponsor of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity and Cup series, was at its core a $1 billion Ponzi scheme.

Just months before, with the support of DC Solar, Chastain had been given a three-race tryout with Ganassi in Xfinity. He wound up winning his first career NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (in a race sponsored by DC Solar). On Nov. 9, Ganassi had announced Chastain would drive the No. 42 Xfinity car full time in 2019.

Within weeks of the raid, Ganassi announced it was shutting down its Xfinity team due to lack of sponsorship.

Chastain was kept in the Ganassi fold, but he wound up making 77 NASCAR starts in 2019 for multiple teams. He eventually raced for points in the Truck Series, where he made it to the Championship 4 with Niece Motorsports.

Chastain found stability in 2020 with a full-time Xfinity ride at Kaulig Racing.

But he’s well aware of the impact the DC Solar scandal had on others in the NASCAR community.

“The tsunami that hit so many people with what all happened was monumental and way bigger in the grand scheme of life,” Chastain observes. “So many jobs lost, people genuinely just that were doing their jobs and doing their position the best they can do. Yeah, it’s something that just is so far over my head I don’t even know how to really put into words. When people ask me what happened, I don’t even know.”

The man who grew up on a watermelon farm knows his status as the new driver of Ganassi’s No. 42 Cup car can never be divorced from the people who helped get him in the door in 2018.

“I do know that I would not be sitting here today, if it wasn’t for everything that happened,” Chastain says. “I mean, there’s no doubt about it. And that group, taking that chance on me was what forever has changed the trajectory of my professional career in NASCAR.”

The Carpoffs? They eventually pled guilty to counts related to wire fraud and money laundering. Jeff Carpoff is now scheduled to be sentenced on April 6. Meanwhile, Chastain will take the No. 42 Cup car on track for the first time in Daytona 500 practice next Wednesday.

With the 2021 season just a week away, Chastain’s triumphant arrival in a top-tier Cup ride (after two seasons and roughly 75 starts in anything but) is flying under the radar.

“I love it,” Chastain says. “I absolutely love it.”

While the newcomer settles in, other storylines have percolated: Kyle Larson joining Hendrick Motorsports after his suspension by way of racial slur; Chase Briscoe taking over Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 car; Christopher Bell finally joining Joe Gibbs Racing’s Cup operation; some guy named Michael Jordan hiring Bubba Wallace.

Preseason headlines aren’t of much value to Chastain.

“Let everybody else have all the attention,” he says. “We’ll just go race and beat them. Yeah, I couldn’t be happier for all those guys and all the other new guys in different spots. … Everybody talks about them and when we drive by them that’s when we’ll get the attention that this team and this car deserves. So, yeah, I love it. It’s just more motivation.”

Even at age 28 and with years of experience on his resume, Chastain still feels “like I have rookie stripes.”

“There’s still a lot of things about the political side of how you interact with other drivers,” Chastain says. “COVID puts a damper on it, but how guys race in the Cup Series and, you know, fitting in and finding a little better cohesiveness with my fellow competitors is a priority, almost priority No. 1. … I’m not gonna roll over for anybody, but blend in a little better, I guess, is my mentality.”

Ross Chastain? One of the most aggressive drivers in NASCAR… is going to try to blend in?

“Well, these are the big boys here,” Chastain points out. “I wouldn’t trade how I’ve raced anybody in the past, I wouldn’t change it. … that got me here. But now I’m here. …

“I’m not just gonna fall in line and sit in, you know, 15th place. But also, I don’t want to (have a line of) drivers waiting on me when I get out of the car every week either, coming and telling me how mad they are. And I’ve had that.”

At the end of my time talking to Chastain, who I’ve known in some capacity since I wrote about his surprise performance in his first Cup start in 2017, I update him on my own state of affairs.

I’d been laid off by NBC Sports in October after the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic caught up to the company. Nearly six years of work ended four weeks shy of the end of the 2020 season.

I told Chastain I would be joining Frontstretch as a contributor. To further keep myself busy during my time between jobs, I’d started a NASCAR-centric YouTube show called “Dropping the Hammer.”

His response was one you’d expect from someone who made it from the bottom to the top, with a couple detours along the way.

“So sorry about that, man. Keep fighting. That’s all we can do, right?” Chastain said. “So keep swinging.”

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