No one was more surprised to run in the top five on a road course in the middle of a downpour, let alone finish there, than Ross Chastain.
“I watched everything back when I got home last night,” Chastain told Frontstretch Monday (May 24) after he finished fourth in Sunday’s inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at the Circuit of the Americas. “I’m still piecing it all together why it worked out all weekend so well.”
Whatever happened, it resulted in the Chip Ganassi Racing driver earning his first career Cup Series top five in his 93rd start.
In the rain-soaked event on the road course, Chastain started 20th. In the middle of the final stage, he found himself in the lead for four laps. After cycling through pit stops, Chastain made his way back to the top five, where he was fourth when the race was called with 14 laps to go.
If told in February about the circumstances in which he’d get his best career Cup finish, Chastain “would have laughed.”
“(I’m) not a road course guy. Definitely not a rain guy,” Chastain said. “I think if I’m surprised, everybody should be surprised … I couldn’t tell if I was a top-five car or a 35th-place car compared to the field. … It sounds bad to say out loud, but it’s the truth. There’s so little grip and there’s so little visibility … constantly looking and reacting, every single lap is a different brake and throttle mark.”
A wet past
In retrospect, is it really a surprise?
Chastain was among four drivers in Sunday’s race who were also present in the field last year when the Xfinity Series essentially competed in a monsoon on the Charlotte ROVAL.
Chastain also competed in the infamous rain race at Mid-Ohio in 2016, along with a race at Watkins Glen in 2018 that had a brief run in the wet.
Due to that experience, Chastain felt more prepared to compete in Sunday’s conditions, which resulted in Kevin Harvick’s remark that he’d “never felt more unsafe in my whole racing career. Period.”
“I’m now conditioned for not being able to see,” he said. “I was ready to drive by the curbing on the side of the backstretch and look for a fence marker way off to the left and the right to know where to brake and expect that there’s a car sitting there somewhere I’ll probably hit and when I hit him, I hope we’re all OK. You just have to live with [it]. I had to drive with that mentality. Because I’ve done it now several times and we haven’t done anything to help the spray. I hope now we do because it’s crazy and not good and dangerous.”
Breaking the habit
In the grand scheme of 2021, his first full Cup season in a competitive ride, Chastain is surprised by how long it took for Sunday’s result to materialize.
His fourth-place finish was only his second top 10 of the season. The first came in the Daytona 500. Before Sunday, the only laps he had led were at Talladega Superspeedway in April (12 laps) and Darlington Raceway earlier this month (10).
“We came in with realistic expectations, but had dreams and goals of competing for wins and stuff,” Chastain said. “We’ve definitely seen a steady increase in our speed and progress, but it just started lower than I expected, than any of us did. … If you asked me when we talked in the offseason, I would have never thought this would be (his first top five).”
Chastain says he’s having fun this season, but there’s been “some weeks where I felt like my world was ending.”
His low point was the fourth race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he placed 23rd. That’s his worst finishing position so far in a race where he didn’t have a DNF.
“Just felt like I wasn’t doing anything right,” Chastain said. “I felt like all my thoughts were completely wrong and my philosophies on driving and how I attacked the corner and how I was driving the car, it felt like it was all wrong. I made some changes and we got the cars a little better and got a little more confidence that I can do this right.”
Part of his improvement process has involved Chastain having to unlearn what he’s learned during his years competing in the Cup Series in lower quality equipment.
“I have a lot of bad habits I’m trying to work through and fundamentally break,” Chastain said. “You can say sitting still on a Monday what I’m gonna do this weekend at Charlotte (Motor Speedway) and how I’m gonna enter the corner and throttle and brake. But we fire off in there the first lap, my butt’s gonna tell me to lift and turn and what to do. From my brain, whatever it wants to do, it’s going to happen. So fundamentally trying to break some of those old habits of safeguarding against spinning out and getting tight and putting the car where it needs and wants to be.
“Now, it seems like when I try to go do that 100%, I blow past it a lot of times, overdrive the car. So what I feel like is trying, now is too much. I got to rein it in, because then it puts me in a spot where I have no room to mess up, whether it’s another car, the wall or just blowing through the tire grip, I’m too close to the limit.”
Eye on the melon
Members of Chastain’s team can’t miss it.
Every weekend, the reminder of their collective goal sits on a counter in the No. 42 team’s hauler, right next to the steps going up to the lounge.
Placed there by hauler driver Roy Miller is the watermelon Chastain hopes to smash to pieces after his first Cup win.
“Everybody in and out of the hauler has to walk by and see it,” Chastain said. “I told them before we ever went to the track at Daytona this year, but my group and CGR, they know what the watermelon means and we want to bust it. We want to make a mess and that’s gonna be a very sweet day when that happens, pun intended, for a sweet watermelon.”
While he didn’t win in Austin, the watermelon that was waiting for him there might soon meet its maker anyway.
“When we don’t win for a few weeks, we cut it open and eat it in sorrow and buy another one,” Chastain said.
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