It may not have been a championship, but Ross Chastain’s victory in the November 5 NASCAR Championship Race at Phoenix sends Trackhouse into the offseason with something to celebrate.
Chastain dominated Sunday’s 312-lap race at Phoenix Raceway, leading six times for 157 laps. He defeated championship-winning driver Ryan Blaney of Team Penske by 1.23-seconds and became the first driver since Denny Hamlin in 2013 that a driver other than the champion won the final race of the season.
Ironically, Chastain was one of the “Championship 4” drivers in last year’s Championship Race and lost the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series title by just 235-feet to Team Penske’s Joey Logano.
The Trackhouse driver didn’t get a chance to challenge for the championship in Sunday’s race because he was the last driver eliminated from advancing into the Round of Eight at the BankofAmerica ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 8.
After that contest, Chastain vowed that he would win do his best to win a race before the end of the season.
He lived up to that promise on November 5 at Phoenix Raceway and Trackhouse can celebrate this victory for months before racing reconvenes in 2024.
There was a race to be won and Chastain won it, unapologetically.
“I know he's mad and I don't care,” Chastain said as he celebrated with a cold Busch Light, next year’s sponsor, and a cold slice of watermelon from his farm in Alva, Florida. “I do not care.
“I did not care then; I do not care now.
“I'm here to race him. I'm not going to wreck him. I gave him the bottom most times. One time I was inside of him after he got by me. I crossed back over into three and I made sure to wrap the bottom. I'm not going to slide up and pinch him at all. It's in my mind the entire time, for sure.”
When Chastain looked in his rear-view camera, he could see the agitation that Blaney was displaying inside his race car, even though he was on the verge of clinching the championship.
“Anger,” Chastain said he saw. “He gets angry. It's okay. I've known him for a decade. I could see him moving around in the car. The car's going straight. I could see his colorful suit and gloves. I didn't see apparently there was the – ‘I was number one,’ I don't know. I could see, like, movement when I checked the camera.
“I was like, ‘Oh, he is angry.’
“The caution came out and we made the right adjustment and were able to drive away. It was nothing other than wanting to win and hold track position. He could run second and win the championship. He did it last year. He can do it again.
“He ultimately did it.”
It didn’t matter that Chastain wasn’t fighting for the championship, he was battling to get Trackhouse back into Victory Lane.
It’s what Racer’s do.
Besides, Trackhouse has many reasons why winning the final race of the season was important.
It’s important to its fans throughout the world. It’s important to the sponsors and it’s important to the employees and crewmembers at Trackhouse Racing in Concord, North Carolina and Trackhouse Entertainment in Nashville, Tennessee.
“For everyone on this team, this vision for Trackhouse and what this was, was goals like this,” Chastain said in Victory Lane. “They were lofty. It started with AdventHealth and the Moose Lodge believing in me, coming over to Trackhouse. Then Kubota, Jockey coming onboard.
“Obviously next year with Busch Light, I couldn't think of anything I would want to do more, is to try to be like Kevin Harvick. Racing him early in the race was bucket list little kid in me, racing that 2005 game, I drove as the 29 GM Goodwrench car. Now I'm driving a Chevy for GM to Victory Lane, a Camaro.
“I am beside myself that we were able to do that.”
Of course, the “Watermelon Farmer” from Alva, Florida celebrated in victory lane with one of his prized crops.
“Watermelon never tastes as sweet as it does in Victory Lane,” Chastain said. “I'm going to gnaw this thing all the way down.”
At Trackhouse, it’s a total team effort. Chastain was quick to point that out when he lauded crew chief Phil Surgen and the pit crew for their tremendous help on the final pit stop.
“That last caution we were really tight,” Chastain explained. “It saved us. Phil Surgen and this group at Trackhouse, all of our GM support staff, sim staff, everybody came up with a way to make this thing turn, and we drove off into the sunset.”
By driving off into the sunset with a victory, allows Trackhouse to have an enjoyable offseason as the team continues to build into the future.
It was Chastain’s fourth career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
The goal in 2023 was for Trackhouse to win the championship. Although they didn’t accomplish that goal, there were many great moments in the season including two victories for Chastain and the stunning PROJECT91 win by Shane van Gisbergen in the July 2 Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race.
“I'm every bit as proud of this season as last season,” Trackhouse founder and owner Justin Marks said. “The series has gotten tougher. These teams are bigger than us, have a lot of resources to figure out these cars. Now it's everybody is understanding the cars more and more, what it takes to make them go fast, the drivers are understanding how to drive them. The level of competition has gotten much more difficult this year.
“Look, we won two races. Three in the organization. I think it's a wonderful success. I think the Playoffs are just very, very difficult, one race can make a difference. Ross had some great races in the Playoffs. The 1 team put up a heck of a fight, but it's so difficult to get to Phoenix.
“I think this is a very successful season, another season that rewarded all the hard work in the company with multiple wins and a lot of happy people.
“It definitely gives us some momentum during the winter to get fired up for next year and try to make it back to Phoenix for the championship run.”
Chastain also proved a point that should not be overlooked.
In 2014, NASCAR began the current NASCAR Championship Race format with four drivers in a one-race, may the best driver win, scenario. It was essentially, “Winner Take All.”
But there are other drivers and other teams competing in the race that are trying to get to victory lane.
Every year since this format began, the ultimate champion won the race.
Chastain ended that by finishing ahead of ultimate champion Ryan Blaney of Team Penske on November 5.
“We have the same desire to win every week,” Surgen said. “The championship implication in that moment really didn't matter to us. Our goal this weekend was to win the race. Running hard for the lead is what we got to do to win.
“That's simply what it was.”
Blaney was obviously frustrated and upset that Chastain was in front. Despite hearing from crew chief Jonathan Hassler and even team owner Roger Penske on the radio that in the bigger picture, he didn’t need to win the race, he just had to be the highest finishing driver of the three championship contenders that remained in the fight.
Although Blaney was upset that Chastain continued in the lead, the Team Penske driver was still three seconds ahead of Larson, his nearest championship contender.
The two drivers raced inches apart with Blaney on the bottom and Chastain on the high line. Blaney ran into the back of Chastain with an intentional tap, but the Trackhouse Racing driver did not take the bait.
Blaney finally took the lead with 52 to go, but Chastain battled back alongside in what seemed unnecessary in terms of the championship.
“I didn't expect him to throttle up down one and two and drive square into me,” Chastain said. “These cars allow that. He didn't care about the 19 (Truex). Probably just as soon the 19 went over me. I don't know.
“Yes, it was unexpected. That last caution couldn't come out at a better time. I was so thankful. Didn't account for guys on two tires. Didn't expect to be second row. Thought I would be front row no matter what.
“Not surprised by it because it's him and he does that. These cars allow that. They allow inconsequential hits. But they also don't affect the front car as much. I slid, but I was able to hold the lead.
“The only contact was him just in a moment of anger throttling up in one to two and drive square up into my back bumper. Other than that, no contact. That's what I'm here to do.”
Blaney was very loose and dropped back to third when Truex passed him for second. It also let Larson cut into the gap on Blaney.
It was obvious to the other Championship contenders who believed Blaney was melting down in his desire to win the race. Byron’s crew chief, Rudy Fugle, implored Byron to go after Blaney, who was two seconds ahead.
Blaney made another bid for the lead before Kyle Busch spun with 37 laps to go for a late-race caution.
The pit opened and Chastain lost three positions but beat Blaney off pit road. Blaney lost four spots.
The driver who benefitted the most was Larson, who gained three positions and moved up to third.
The green flag waved with 31 laps to go, and Hamlin was the leader. Chastain went to the outside of Hamlin and Larson to the inside in a mad scramble.
Larson and Chastain were side-by-side before Chastain pulled ahead with 29 to go.
Larson was second, Byron third and Blaney fourth.
It didn’t matter in terms of the championship that Chastain was in front because Larson, Blaney and Byron were all locked in a battle for the highest position that would determine the championship.
Surgen was not surprised that Blaney gave Chastain a tap to try to take the lead with 52 to go.
“No, it's a championship race. He's got a lot to lose,” Surgen said. “He's going to run as hard as he thinks he needs to, to secure that. I wasn't surprised that it was a hard fight.”
It was a race, and Chastain and Trackhouse proved they are racers whether they were contending for a championship or not.
“I think when it comes to on the race track, we're just trying to win,” Marks said. “When I talk about disruption, it's like how can we be a compelling team in the series, an exciting team in the series, one that people and partners and fans pay attention to.
“Certainly, it has organically worked out that we are lucky enough to have these really cool special moments, whether it's being the first in whatever 10 years to win the season finale as a non-contender in the championship, riding the wall wide open, getting the first Mexican-born race winner (Daniel Suarez in 2022) in the sport of Cup. It's really kind of cool that it happens that way.
“At the end of the day we have a great culture in the company, a lot of really, really valuable people that really like working here. When it comes to on-the-race track stuff, we try to be fast and try to win.
“The more we win, the better everything else gets.”
Chastain saved his best for the last race of the season.
Trackhouse entered the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season with high expectations and backed those up in the first three months of the season.
Chastain began to lose his way in May, before rebounding with his first win of the season at Nashville in June. That victory put him into the playoffs, but a crash near the end of Stage 1 at the Playoff Race at Talladega in the second round of the playoffs put him in a deficit he couldn’t overcome.
He was ultimately eliminated from advancing at the Charlotte ROVAL.
But Chastain didn’t quit. Just because he couldn’t win a championship in 2023, didn’t mean he couldn’t win races.
He proved that at Phoenix.
“Indescribable,” Chastain said of his feelings after the big win. “It's honestly hard to put into words what this means, what winning in Cup feels like. I cannot describe it. I cannot describe the ripple effects this will have going into the off-season, preparing for next year.
“Justin Marks hired me, Trackhouse hired me. Justin knew who I was. I've wrecked Justin Marks in the Xfinity races before. Daniel Suarez has wrecked Justin Marks in the Xfinity Series races before. He knew who he was hiring when he put us behind the wheels of his two cars.
“Through all the stuff, he stayed with us. There was definitely public stuff that I wouldn't have said, but he's my boss and he gets to say it. He owns the team. I got to be the employee at that point. As an independent contractor, I have to listen to what he says if I want to drive the car.
“Y'all got to watch that. Y'all got to watch me learn through that process. Our sport is incredibly invasive for professional and personal things that people say if they say them publicly, which y'all will put a microphone in front of us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if we would allow it.
“It is so, so good to end this season with all the stuff, right? The best way I can describe it, just a lot of stuff. That's Cup racing. I'm going to make mistakes. They knew that hiring me. Through the good days of winning and the bad days of crashing out going for wins, spinning people out, ultimately, they're there for me.
“This is a great way to go enjoy the off-season.”