Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain finds himself in the middle of the pack as 16 drivers begin pursuit of the NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
Chastain is eighth in the standings as teams begin the first round of the 10-race playoffs. He is 25 points behind leaders William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. and four points in front of the cutline, below which four drivers will be eliminated after the first round.
During an appearance at Playoffs Media Day Thursday in Charlotte, Chastain said his positioning at the start of the playoffs has little or no impact on how he approaches Sunday’s race.
“It does not affect how I drive off into turn one at Darlington during qualifying or during lap 30 or lap 230 or 330,” Chastain said. “It’s about what I need to do to put my car into the best position to win and get as many points as I can, run as fast a lap as I can.
“I can’t think about any of the other stuff. And I don’t have the bandwidth for it. I think about the lap I’m in, what does the next corner need from me. It’s obviously a very repetitive process of what does the next corner need from me.”
Although Chastain’s results at Darlington have been mixed – his best finish at the egg-shaped oval is a third, the track, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway, remains one of his favorites.
“It’s humbling when I’m on it, and it’s definitely been humbling to me,” Chastain said. “It’s awesome. I don’t know how to describe it. I feel so natural when I’m out there. I love it. It’s been its fair share of mean to me. But no matter what, I usually drive out with a smile.”
His goal Sunday is “to just go get points,” he said. “Let’s wrap up as many points as we can and see what we’ve got at the end of each elimination race.”
Darlington, Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway make up the playoffs’ first round. After the Bristol race, the bottom four drivers will be eliminated. A win in any of the three first-round races automatically advances the driver to the second round.
Chastain finished second to champion Joey Logano last season, losing the title by 235 feet. That number is painted in large size on the entranceway to Trackhouse Racing, serving as a tool to remind team members of how close they were to the title last year.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Chastain said. “The first couple of times I drove over it I didn’t care for it. I actually parked on the other side of the building because I didn’t really get it.
“But the more I thought about it, by the end of the first week I thought through what Justin (team owner Justin Marks) said and talked to him more about it. I just started driving across it like everybody else. Now I look forward to a little grip of the steering wheel, a little pump of the throttle, getting right back
to what I need to do today. That’s really all I can do is try to be better the next time.”
'Next time' begins Sunday at Darlington on one of the sport’s toughest tracks.
“Now we’ve got a shot for 10 weeks to go fight for this thing,” Chastain said.