Top Dog: Ross Chastain
For nearly the past month, Ross Chastain has been the definition of bittersweet. He is enjoying the best run of his NASCAR Cup Series career thus far, leading laps and competing for wins. The last two weeks at Phoenix Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he finished second and third. He left the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta (March 20) with a runner-up finish once again.
It is the third straight week Chastain has led the underdogs. Yet, it is also the third straight week he could have easily led the entire field to the checkered flag. Two weeks after leading a career-high 83 laps at Las Vegas, Chastain got the lead on lap 55 of the race. His No. 1 AdventHealth Chevrolet had tremendous speed, and he was able to set the tone over the field. But that all changed on lap 95.
Chastain blew a tire entering turn 1 at 185 mph, sliding up and making contact with the right rear against the wall. He was able to make it back to the pits with little damage, a credit to the Next Gen cars’ composite bodies. But the odds continued to stack against him, as he was held two laps for improper fueling during that caution.
A pair of timely yellows put Chastain back on the lead lap right around the halfway point of the race. That was all he needed to charge back through the field, even earning a point in stage 2.
As expected, this race of attrition proved to be a game of survival in the end. Chastain was at the front for caution after caution, setting himself up for a shot at the win. On the final lap, he crossed Bubba Wallace over to take second. Down the backstretch, he saw the best sight he could: teammate Daniel Suarez. However, Chastain had Christopher Bell to his inside, slowing his momentum down. Bell crossed the line in second but was hit with a penalty for going below the double white line, handing Chastain his second consecutive runner-up finish.
— Noah Lewis (NASCAR) (@Noah_Lewis1) March 21, 2022
Chastain now sits 10th in the points standings and 12th in the playoff standings. He also now leads the series with three top-five finishes, clearly showing that he is ready to elevate to the next level.
For the second straight week, Trackhouse Racing landed both of its drivers in the top 10. In fact, both finished inside the top five for the first time in organization history. Suarez finished in fourth for his second top five of the season. Not a bad way to reward the boss Justin Marks’s wife on her birthday.
Suarez took well to the new style of racing at Atlanta, running inside the top 10 for a majority of the race. He scored eight stage points with results of third and sixth in the two stages, and that included overcoming a mid-race speeding penalty. As mentioned, he was up front in the final laps, getting to push Chastain to the checkered. While it wasn’t the win they’ve come oh-so-close to, both drivers are looking like legitimate contenders on a weekly basis, a huge step for a team in only its second season.
The Monterrey, Mexico native earned 46 points on the day, the second most behind race winner William Byron. His fourth-place finish propelled him to 14th in the playoff standings, putting both Trackhouse drivers in playoff territory, though there is a long way to go. Compared to fellow new team 23XI Racing, Trackhouse is checking its boxes and going one step further.
— Julia Yasmeen Piquet (@JuliaPiquet) March 20, 2022
If it wasn’t for Chastain, Corey LaJoie may have earned the comeback of the race. Add that he is in lesser equipment, and that argument is valid. On lap 145, Tyler Reddick lost a tire in front of the field, setting off a 14-car incident. Involved in it was LaJoie, who went spinning through the infield grass and even had all four tires off the ground.
That was not the end of the story, however. Thanks to the late-race chaos, LaJoie rebounded to get to the front of the field. When it was all said and done, LaJoie finished in fifth, his best career Cup finish and first top five. In a post-race video, LaJoie noted that he was standing in the inspection area, a place where the top five cars go after the race. He mentioned how he had never been there after a race before, showing how surreal the result was.
Justin Haley continues to steadily progress in his first full-time season. The Kaulig Racing driver had his best finish of the season in 11th at Atlanta. Haley has a knack for superspeedway-style racing. All of his Xfinity wins came on superspeedways, as well as his lone Cup win in an upset at Daytona in 2019. Haley was on his way to a top 10 when contact from Chris Buescher and Wallace sent him hard into the wall as the checkered flag flew. Haley was checked and released from the infield care center.
Justin Haley said not wanting to go below the inside line is what caused the wrecked on the final lap. pic.twitter.com/IRkF6jjJnp
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) March 21, 2022
Races of attrition provide opportunities for smaller teams to pounce. LaJoie’s teammate Josh Bilicki earned his best finish with Spire Motorsports in 16th. Georgia native David Ragan made his second start of the season with Rick Ware Racing after earning a top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500. Ragan brought home a solid 18th-place finish.
Lost in the luster of the new teams such as Trackhouse, 23XI and Kaulig is Live Fast Motorsports. However, team co-owner and driver BJ McLeod made the team known Sunday, earning his first top 20 of the season with a 19th-place finish.
The question has been raised recently on whether Greg Biffle is hurting his legacy by running with NY Racing and suffering two DNFs in both starts in 2022 prior to Atlanta. However, he once again proved his talent by guiding the No. 44 Chevrolet to a 20th-place finish, his first top 20 since his last full-time season in 2016.
Several underdogs fell victim to the unknowns and new sights of racing at Atlanta. In his debut with Kaulig Racing, Noah Gragson spun on lap 24, making heavy contact with the outside wall to end his race and place him in 37th. At the end of the first stage, a wreck involving Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch triggered more action from behind, causing Ty Dillon to hit the wall hard. Dillon would finish out of the race in 36th, snapping his four-race streak inside the top 20.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appeared to have one of the best cars, once again showing his superspeedway prowess. However, just like Chastain, Stenhouse blew a tire on lap 201. He was not as lucky, getting t-boned by Austin Cindric and relegating him to 30th. Make it twice now that Stenhouse has had an extremely fast car taken out by circumstances outside his control.
Another driver has an issue while leading!
The No. 47 collects the Nos. 2, 4 and 43. pic.twitter.com/IirLVoZs1k
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 20, 2022
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 20, 2022
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 20, 2022
Underdogs Sound Off
Ross Chastain (2nd): “Maybe second. What a day, Regan (Smith). That’s the fight, that’s the fight in Trackhouse. This Gen 7 car to take a lick like that, blow a tire out of nowhere leading. Just cruising, blow a right rear, slam the wall, I thought our day was over. Our guys went underneath the car, got the tow closer and we got the balance back where I could drive it and this Advent Health Chevy was fast. It was so fast. I mean we were fighting with William (Byron) there at the beginning. So cool to race with buddies again. I only have a few, but the last two weeks I’ve been able to race with buddies. Can’t thank everybody enough at Trackhouse, the Moose, Advent Health, everybody that’s been on this car. Justin Marks and his family for what they do for me and Daniel Suarez. What a teammate to push me there at the end.”
Daniel Suarez (4th): “It was just like that, up and down. Our No. 99 CommScope Chevrolet was fast. We did a good job on pit road. We had fast pit stops. When we have a fast Chevrolet Camaro, it makes things easier. Everyone at Trackhouse Racing has been working very, very hard to build cars like this. We just have to keep it up. We have a few trophies coming in the near future.”
Corey LaJoie (5th): “We did exactly what we set out to do today. We made Atlanta Motor Speedway like a superspeedway. We missed the wrecks and put our No. 7 Fraternal Order of Eagles Camaro ZL1 there at the end and got a top-five finish. It’s great to start our season with three top 15s and now one top five. Hopefully, we can maintain the momentum over the next couple of weeks and put ourselves in a good points position through the summer. Thank you to everyone at Spire Motorsports and the No. 7 team for all the hard work to continue to build fast Chevys.”
Justin Haley (11th): “Obviously, Chris (Buescher) and I were going for the same real estate there at the end, so neither of us were really to blame. I did not want to be forced down below the red and white line. I have been bitten by that rule in the past, so I obviously did not want to go below it, and I was not going to check up either. We had a really strong No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1 all day, but we were just unlucky at the end.”
Cody Ware (26th): “We were just riding around. I had the 77 and a couple of guys behind me and a couple guys in front of me that we all just planned on riding around and we weren’t ready to race yet. We were still just trying to figure it out to get to the end and go racing with maybe five or 10 laps to go but got that taken away from us today. I’m just really disappointed because my team brought a great Nurtec ODT Ford Mustang to the track today, and it’s just a real shame that this is how the day ended.”
Todd Gilliland (27th): “That was very unfortunate. I went high and we kind of split the field. Something for us to learn from and we didn’t want that to happen. Our Georgia Peanuts Ford was loose to start and then we broke a toe link. We fixed it, but we were laps down. We were racing it out and then got into the fence.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (30th): […] It was really, really fast. We drove right up to the front from the back there at the start of the race. You saw a few tires let go with people leading, running in the front. I don’t know if with all the speed we have here, if the right rear can’t hang on or what.
Noah Gragson (37th): “I just got loose there through (turns) 1 and 2. It was still early in the race, so I wasn’t pushing it. I was just trying to bide my time and stay patient. It’s such a long race. It’s unfortunate. I hate it for the ChevyLiners.com team and everyone at Kaulig Racing. They’ve been putting in so many hours this year. My goal was to complete all the laps and finish the race. The No. 16 Camaro ZL1 was fast, it was just a mistake.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
McLeod’s performance was delivered in a pretty sweet ride. Celsius Energy came on board for the race, and they got their money’s worth as McLeod energized the team with a top 20 run.
Dude is a legend. pic.twitter.com/oHGMqwR5sk
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) March 20, 2022
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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