What is Ross Chastain’s most vivid memory of his landmark first NASCAR Cup Series victory?
The faces. So many faces.
He took the checkered flag at Circuit of the Americas March 27, 2022 and seconds later saw his racing journey fly by as if a movie had started.
“Crossing the line, a lot of the people who were part of my path getting here crossed and flashed in front of my eyes,” Chastain said. “I swear it was like a thousand people. It was wild. I don’t have much memory of driving up into turn one (on the cooldown lap) because there were so many faces in my mind. I saw so many faces from my family and all the others.”
A year later, although Chastain and Trackhouse Racing have moved on from that spectacular moment in Texas, the meaning of the day lives on. As the team prepares to race again at COTA, the echoes of the organization’s first Cup victory remain vibrant.
“It meant the world. For me, it made it all worth it – the path to get here and the sacrifice of moving away from home at 18 years old and setting off on this journey. I was told, ‘No,’ a lot, told to go back to the farm. People at the time that I respected told me that. They didn’t think it was going to work out.”Ross Chastain
How did it happen?
Chastain led the race entering the final lap (in overtime), lost the lead and then rallied to regain it as smoke spread and cars went sliding with the checkered flag waiting in the distance. It was an all-out, high-stress, crowded-at-the-front lap on NASCAR’s high ground, and Chastain emerged from it with a 10-gallon smile and enough fire to light up Texas.
No one expected it to be easy. NASCAR road racing has been famous – or infamous – over the past several years for no-holds-barred competition over the final lap or two, and that Texas race day would be no exception.
Chastain had a lead of almost a second over second-place AJ Allmendinger as the white flag flew. Allmendinger, a road-course expert, ran in Chastain’s shadow for much of the last lap before surging onto his bumper approaching turn 15. He bumped Chastain, sending the No. 1 Chevrolet to the right and out of the main groove. At the same time, third-place Alex Bowman arrived to wrestle for the lead.
Undeterred, Chastain corrected his car and raced after Allmendinger, catching him quickly. In turn 17, Chastain bumped Allmendinger, and Bowman shot into the lead. A few seconds later, Chastain nudged Allmendinger again, and Allmendinger’s car hit Bowman’s. Allmendinger slid, and Chastain shot past the other contenders into first. He held on through turn 20 and saw the flagstand beckoning.
“Coming off turn 20, I knew there was nothing else that was going to go wrong,” Chastain said. “I’m just staring at the flagstand. I actually moved that way because I wanted a really good view of the checkered flag. I was staring at that box and watching it wave. I just stared at it until I went under it.”
Chastain screamed that he and the team had won, and then he heard another voice. It was crew chief Phil Surgen, launching his own scream over the team radio.
Screaming was definitely in vogue at that point.
Immediately, there was pandemonium in the Trackhouse pit. Team owner Justin Marks raised his arms in celebration and joined other team members who were jumping wildly and hugging everyone within range.
Marks, a road racer himself, knew what to expect over that final lap. He was almost certain there would be contact and others in the front group would bounce fenders with Chastain in search of the win.
“He drove off the back straightaway pretty strong, and at that moment the heart’s going and everybody is watching,” Marks said. “He was in a good spot to be able to maintain the gap and bring it home. But I think he was pretty conservative getting into that braking zone, and that allowed the 16 (Allmendinger) to get right on his tail. At that point, all bets are off.
“I was sort of waiting for it. There weren’t really any good passing zones left, and AJ was right on his bumper. I knew that AJ was going to hit him and knock him out of the way. When that happened, the 48 (Bowman) was there. They were in such a tight group. It was what I expected. As soon as somebody opens that door and makes the race physical, that’s when the race becomes physical. But I was pretty confident he wasn’t going to roll over, that he was going to try to do whatever he could do and get it back, which he did. I was proud of him for that.”
At the moment that Allmendinger became the predator, knocking Chastain from the lead, it was clear that Chastain needed to strike back, and quickly. In this game of rock ’em, sock ’em on NASCAR road courses, turnabout is fair play.
“He was just reacting in the moment and driving off pure ability and competitiveness,” Marks said of Chastain. “The race was pretty much in doubt, really, until the last corner.”
Like Chastain, Marks had a block of memories to sort through at the arrival of the first win.
“We all went pretty crazy. It was a pretty special moment. That was what all the work was building up to. I thought a lot about two years before when this was just an idea. Just a concept. Now we’re a winning race team."Justin Marks
“For me, it was really exciting to see the elation and happiness on everybody’s faces. Everybody had been working hard to win for a long time. A lot of people in that group trusted me and the Trackhouse vision when there wasn’t a lot to trust. To watch them experience that moment was what I took away from those few moments after the win.”
A year has passed. Chastain went on to win another race on a wildly different landscape – Talladega Superspeedway, and teammate Daniel Suarez scored his first victory on the road course at Sonoma Raceway. Chastain came within one position of winning the Cup championship, and Suarez landed in the top 10.
The return to COTA will ignite memories of the magic of 2022, but the focus now is on the future, not the past.
“Honestly, I feel more pressure this year, especially for places like COTA and others where we ran good,” Chastain said. “We want to run good again. The hardest part will be sustaining the level of competition that we arrived at last year. I’ve gone into preparing for COTA with a totally open mindset and exploring what’s possible.
“The car is a little different in nature, and we’ve had a year to keep pushing the possibilities forward with it as far as the setup and new downforce package and smaller spoiler. It will be different to drive, and I don’t want last year’s success to cloud my vision for what’s coming up. “It was a big deal to get that first win, and it’s something I’ll always be proud of, but right now I’ll be prouder when we get another one.”