Although he was stopped one position short of winning the championship, Ross Chastain was front and center in the NASCAR Cup Series for much of the 2022 season.
The fact that Chastain, driver of Trackhouse Racing’s No. 1 Chevrolets, was such a force last year makes the new season all that more promising, with every team member expected to benefit from what was a wildly successful season.
The standout and most visible moments from Chastain’s 2022 are wins at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway and the “Hail Melon” last-lap run at Martinsville Speedway that propelled him into the final round of the playoffs. But, for many within the Trackhouse organization, the tone and tenor of the season are more about the steady gains that were made and the fact that general expectations were exceeded.
“We had basically a new race team, and we were taking on a new race car with the Next Gen,” said Phil Surgen, Chastain’s crew chief. “Ross and largely the whole organization being somewhat unproven, expectations certainly weren’t that we would be second in the championship and that we would have as many successful races as we had. The fact that we had so many top fives (15) and good overall performance every week – all that was probably better than most or all expected.”
Chastain’s season was, in many ways, quite historic. His last-lap move at Martinsville Speedway, which attracted worldwide attention in motorsports circles and made him a viral sensation in the social media realm, startled virtually everybody who experienced it and eventually resulted in NASCAR deciding to outlaw the move in future races. But beyond the excitement created by that 15 seconds of drama, the results of the season put Chastain and his team in high standing historically.
“Given the scenario one year ago before the season started, it probably wasn’t prudent to set expectations for a serious championship run or multiple race wins or double-digit top-five finishes just purely based on the history of the sport,” Surgen said.
“There hasn’t really been an organization that’s new or even in their sophomore year that’s been that successful. But everything came together and we were able to exceed expectations.”Phil Surgen
Chastain scored his first Cup victory in the sixth race of the season at COTA, emerging first from a wild scramble near the finish of the road-course race. Four races later he won in a very different landscape, battling through the tense high-speed draft at Talladega Superspeedway to finish first. Chastain was third taking the white flag. As drivers in front of and behind him made big moves on the last lap, Chastain held his spot and avoided sliding and spinning cars to win the race.
The victory solidified Trackhouse’s standing as a team to be reckoned with and underlined its status as the surprise organization of the season. Chastain had started the season by crashing in the Daytona 500 and finishing 29th at Auto Club Speedway in California. Then the bus turned around. He was third at Las Vegas and second at Phoenix and Atlanta before scoring at COTA and then powering to the Talladega victory.
“The COTA win and the Talladega win reinforced what we had going on,” Surgen said. “We started the year off pretty rough. We missed the feature for the Clash, crashed early at Daytona, wrecked in practice at Fontana and crashed again in the race. But we followed that up with top threes at Vegas and Phoenix, and we didn’t really lose our stride. Nobody here – the driver, the team, management – lost focus after a rough start. We were able to pull through it and build on the positive things we could take away from those early races. We had good speed at Daytona, and we were pretty fast at Fontana. COTA and Talladega reinforced that we were doing the right things and staying on the right path.”
Chastain’s aggressive nature led to race wins and top-five runs but also resulted in occasional conflicts with other drivers as Trackhouse asserted its strength and its no-give-up nature week after week. That led to some redirection, but it was short-lived, as team owner Justin Marks explained.
“There was certainly a moment in the summer when we felt like we were creating problems for ourselves that were sort of unnecessary,” he said. “We made an attempt to kind of calm that stuff down, but we realized really quickly that we were just getting Ross out of his comfort zone by doing that. The summer was a stretch of very mediocre results because Ross just wasn’t himself. He was trying to be somebody different. He’s just a very aggressive driver. Trying to rein him in just didn’t work. So when we set him back off again at the beginning of the playoffs, we almost won a championship.
“We had to let him be what he is, and that’s where the results came from.”
There was no better example of those “results” than Chastain’s bold last-lap move at Martinsville, where he rode the wall through the final turns to finish high enough to assure a spot in the Championship Four at Phoenix.
That move won’t be repeated because NASCAR has effectively eliminated the advantage it might offer because of penalties.
“It’s not something I ever want to do again, but I’ll do anything inside the race car that I trust,” Chastain said. “I trust this Next Gen car more than anything I’ve driven to keep me safe. I have no problem putting it in dynamic situations that most people would never think of, but deliberately hitting the wall like I did at Martinsville -- I’m good with not doing that again.
“We’ll just beat them in all different ways.”
The bright red Chevrolet Chastain rode into NASCAR history that day will be preserved in its race state for fans to see. It’s likely to wind up in a display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
“We had a lot of debate about it,” Marks said. “Preserving that car was going to cost the company a lot of money because these cars are expensive and we need to race them. But then when NASCAR announced that they had made a rule that they weren’t going to allow that kind of move anymore, then we made a decision as a company. We’re going to return that car to the condition it was in when it came off the track and display it for the fans.”
With 2022 providing a vibrant background, Chastain and the No. 1 team move into the new season with greater expectations, in large part because the entire team – from driver to tire changers to on-the-road mechanics – is back.
“It’s pretty rare that you don’t have at least one change,” Surgen said. “All of the pit crew, all of the road crew, the engineers – everything is the same as last year. And this group of guys is phenomenal. The chemistry is really great. I’m extremely excited that there are no changes.
“Last year kind of gives us a different goalpost to set expectations for this season. And they’re higher than last year. The biggest thing that last year shows me and tells me is that I’m confident that I have the right people and the right process.”
As the team looks forward to the start of another season, the plan is to make minor improvements across the board, Surgen said.
“We need to make some small gains probably in every area,” he said. “There’s not one area that’s weak, but to get those extra couple of points along the way and those extra couple of positions at Phoenix (in the championship race), everybody is going to have to figure out where those couple percent of improvements come from. It’s not one thing or one department; it’s the aggregate of a lot of little things going into this year.”
Chastain, who won the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association Richard Petty Driver of the Year Award for his 2022 accomplishments, is ready to push the button on the new year.
“Nothing from last year is going to carry us,” he said. “I could argue that I have more nerves about this year than last year. Last year I had the element of the unknown and could kind of hide behind that. I can’t say that this year."
“I’m ready to get going. It’s time to extract those last couple of hundredths of seconds. That’s where the last little bit of juice gets squeezed. Trying to find that is what I live for."
“Living in the nervousness and uneasiness of what’s ahead is an awesome experience. No matter what your line of work is or what your hobby is, finding that level of discomfort and learning to live inside of it is not easy, but for me it’s something I welcome. I just enjoy the rush it gives me.”