Kurt Busch scored what could be the final win for Chip Ganassi Racing on Sunday (July 11) at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Less than two weeks ago, Ganassi announced that he was selling his NASCAR team to Trackhouse Racing effective the end of 2021. Trackhouse, in turn, confirmed that its team would field two cars in 2022: one for current driver Daniel Suarez and a second car with a driver to be announced later.
The sale of CGR effectively made Busch and teammate Ross Chastain free agents. Busch is in his 21st season as a full-time Cup Series racer. He is a former champion, past Daytona 500 winner, and a 33-time race winner as of Sunday. Chastain is not new to Cup; Sunday’s race was his 100th start at NASCAR’s highest level. But this is the first season in which he is driving competitive equipment. In short, Busch has enjoyed a distinguished NASCAR career while it feels like Chastain’s is just beginning to take off. At the moment, both are looking for a job beyond this season.
Busch’s victory at Atlanta obviously did a lot to help his prospects. The final laps of the race pitted Busch against his brother Kyle, with the two of them slicing through the field on Atlanta’s worn-out surface. Both drivers hit pit road for their final stops with a little less than 50 laps to go. Although Kurt was leading prior to the pit cycle, Kyle jumped ahead of him after everyone had pitted and was able to maintain the lead.
It looked like Kyle’s race to lose.
However, Chastain had a role to play in the finish. As Kyle came up to lap the No. 42 with 25 laps remaining, Chastain blocked Kyle as they ran the high line through turns 3 and 4. Kurt, meanwhile, ran low through the turns and made up a lot of ground on his brother. Kurt’s Chevrolet and Kyle’s Toyota flashed down the frontstretch side by side as Kurt tried to complete the pass.
As they entered turn 1 on the following lap, Chastain stayed in the high groove, forcing Kyle to sweep down into the middle lane. Both Busch brothers raced past Chastain at the entrance of turn 2, but Kurt was also able to slip past Kyle as they exited the corner. Kyle tried valiantly in the closing laps to pass his brother back, to no avail; Kurt earned his fourth career Atlanta victory and secured a NASCAR playoff bid in the process.
Given both Busch brothers’ post-race comments, it was obvious that they felt like Chastain aided his CGR teammate.
“Shake and bake,” Kurt said, referencing the old Talladega Nights axiom. “He did his job as a teammate. Ross is gonna get a little flack for it, but that’s what it takes to be a good teammate at the right moment. So, I couldn’t be more proud of Ross Chastain. I’ll pay him back eventually, but right now this is our No. 1 car in victory lane.”
Kyle, of course, was not so complimentary of Chastain.
“I gave it everything I had there early, and then just smoked it behind the No. 42, obviously,” he said. “[That] shows you what kind of driver he is.
“The No. 1 was definitely better than us today,” Kyle added, “I just thought I had him. And we did, but you know, the racing just didn’t play out that way for us.”
Just as it did for the Busch brothers, Chastain’s move will generate a lot of opinions in the coming weeks. Beyond whether or not Chastain did the right thing, it must be noted that he was in quite an awkward position. It was not just a simple case of a driver trying to do his teammate a favor. Kurt Busch and Chastain may be teammates right now, but they are competing against each other for a slot at a competitive team for 2022 and beyond.
Certainly, Trackhouse must be considering both Busch and Chastain for their second car. Does Sunday’s win tip the scales in Busch’s favor? Trackhouse is a new team with a lot of growth potential, and it may be wise for them to seek an experienced veteran who can help improve its program. Not only does Busch have as much experience as anyone in the Cup Series field, but he proved that he can still win races. Although Chastain has flashed a lot of potential during his NASCAR career, he has never won a Cup event.
Meanwhile, Busch’s win makes Chastain’s road to the playoffs very difficult. With just five races to go until the postseason begins, the No. 42 is 19th in points, 145 below the cutline. It is highly unlikely that Chastain would be able to make up that deficit in the remaining races. His only realistic path forward is to win.
Busch actually entered Sunday’s race on the playoff bubble, only 25 points to the good, but his victory virtually guarantees his passage to the postseason. Perhaps Busch owes his playoff ticket to Chastain, but the box score won’t reflect that. All the point standings will show is that Busch is once again a winner, heading for the Round of 16 while Chastain will most likely be left out.
Helping Busch in the way Chastain did was a very difficult thing to do. It opens him up to backlash for being a lapped car that impacted the finish of a race. However, Chastain’s artful post-race comments reveal the finish of Sunday’s race could still serve him well in the long term.
“Kurt asked for the bottom, so I gave him the preferred lane,” Chastain said. “[I was] racing to stay on the lead lap and I’m very aware of what’s going on, on the track around me.
“To see a Chip Ganassi Racing car go to victory lane, with all that’s happened in the last few weeks, and all this year, there’s nothing I want more. One team one goal, and that’s to win. Hate Chip wasn’t here to enjoy this, but for our Clover Chevy to be as far off as we were and to have a teammate go win, that’s best-case scenario for us.”
Chastain clearly knew what he was doing, but he justified it as doing what was best for CGR. That kind of commitment to the team goes a long way with any future team owners who may be interested in hiring him. Even though a victory by Busch has the potential to eliminate him from the playoffs, and even though his professional relationship with CGR is coming to an end, Chastain honored his commitments. Just like Erik Jones at Martinsville last year, Chastain was a good company man, doing what he could to help his teammate’s championship chances despite the possibility he will not race for the team next year.
For a driver who is sometimes criticized for racing recklessly and making rash judgments, Chastain did a smart thing on Sunday. You can bet that the team owners of NASCAR were paying attention to how he supported his teammate, even in a situation that did not benefit him personally. Some fans will cry foul about Chastain blocking the leader with the race on the line, but this strategy is nothing new to motorsports. As long as there are teammates, there will be on-track cooperation among them.
Thanks to some expert driving by Kurt Busch, and a helping hand from Chastain, CGR is in victory lane once more. And even though Busch was the one who walked away with the trophy, both drivers’ stock is on the rise as they seek their next rides.
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