With two cars finishing in the top five of Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, that would be a good reason for Trackhouse owner Justin Marks to celebrate.
But Marks was behind the wheel of a race car on Sunday, far, far away from California’s Inland Empire.
Marks was in a race car that was on the pole at Sebring Raceway in Sebring California for the Trans-Am Series opener.
Racers race and Marks, Ross Chastain, and Daniel Suarez, as well as the entire Trackhouse team, had reason to feel good on February 26, 2023.
Chastain’s No. 1 Kubota Chevrolet Camaro was the class of the field in Sunday’s final NASCAR Cup Series race on the 2.0-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway that opened in 1997.
Chastain was in the lead for 92 laps of the 200-lap race, won both Stage 1 and Stage 2 and was in contention for the victory in the closing laps of the race.
Chastain was locked in a duel with Kyle Busch of Richard Childress Racing in the No. 8 Chevrolet.
With the laps winding down and drivers making their final green-flag pit stops, Chastain and Busch both pitted in tandem with 33 laps to go. Busch got the edge off pit road with Chastain in close pursuit.
Once in clean air, however, Busch’s No. 8 Chevrolet was able to pull away from Chastain. After the pit stop, Chastain also had to fend off another fast Chevrolet, the No. 9 NAPA Chevy driven by Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch cruised to the victory, the 61st NASCAR Cup Series victory of his career and his first since joining RCR this season. He led a top-four Chevrolet sweep that also included, in order, Elliott’s No. 9, Chastain’s No. 1 and Trackhouse teammate Daniel Suarez in the No. 99.
After dominating so much of the race, Chastain had a simple explanation of how Busch was able to pull away at the end of the race.
“He got faster,” Chastain said on pit road.
Chastain was confident in the setup of his No. 1 Chevrolet for the grip level on the 2.0-mile aging asphalt at Auto Club Speedway.
“Our balance was building loose most of the day, so I thought we did everything right,” Chastain explained. “We kept up with it and it would just build pretty loose late in the runs.
“At times, it was enough, and at times, they got way better.
“But I thought our No. 1 Kubota Chevrolet was the steady force. To start off the way that we have this year is a total 180 from last year when it was not like this. So, as much as it stings, and as much as it does hurt, hats off to Chevrolet for the top four there and for Trackhouse (on our finishes) at our first crack at big tracks here.
“That is all we can ask for.”
In the five races Kubota is serving as the primary sponsor of Chastain’s No. 1 Kubota Chevrolet, a $10,000 donation will be made to the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) for a top-10 finish.
The FVC is a national nonprofit organization that assists military veterans and currently serving members of the Armed Forces to transition into careers in farming. Kubota first partnered with the FVC in 2015 on the “Geared to Give” program which has provided $800,000 to the coalition in the form of organizational support, grants to veterans and 36 pieces of donated equipment.
“Someone asked me if I could pick partners, who would I want to work with,” Chastain said. “I told them any brand associated with agriculture would be awesome. Agriculture and watermelon farming have been such a huge part of my life. I enjoy the natural connection with Kubota. Meeting their people who all have different types of responsibilities and involvement in the company has been awesome. I've also been able to connect with dealers and customers at various events and it's cool to swap stories with them."
It was much better than what Chastain experienced at Auto Club Speedway in 2022.
That is when he was involved in a hard crash in practice last year and his Trackhouse team had to prepare the backup car for the driver from Alva, Florida to drive in the race.
Chastain finished 29th last year.
This year, Chastain and the other NASCAR Cup Series drivers went into the race without turning a single lap in practice or qualifications.
Because of the extremely unusual winter weather in California’s Inland Empire, Saturday’s activity was canceled because of a combination of pouring rain that eventually turned to snow and sleet.
NASCAR and Auto Club Speedway safety crews were on duty at 5 a.m. Pacific Time drying the track and addressing the weepers (cracks in the track where water seeped through) in time to start the race on time at 12:37 p.m. PT.
Chastain is a strong believer that what happened to him last year at Fontana played a major role in his development into a championship contender in 2022.
"I thought I better figure out how not wreck race cars,” he said. “It was such a tough way to start the year last year. The cars supply was so limited then, and I wrecked two that weekend. I'm so happy we were able to regroup, and everybody continued to believe in me. We got the ship righted and went on to get a couple of wins and have a shot at a championship. That was awesome.
“I certainly lived through all kinds of emotions last year."
Chastain felt different emotions on Sunday, including the disappointment of having the best car in the field only to finish third at the end.
But in the big picture, Chastain’s finish puts him in the NASCAR Cup Series championship lead with 92 points. Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano of Team Penske is second with 91 points.
Trackhouse also takes the lead in team owner points by the same margin over Team Penske.
It was also a very productive day for Daniel Suarez in the No. 99 Chevrolet. The driver from Monterrey, Mexico finished fourth in the Freeway Insurance Camaro.
“I’m very, very proud of everyone at Trackhouse Racing,” Suarez said. “They keep building very fast race cars and it’s a lot of fun to race like this. My No. 99 Freeway Insurance Chevy team did a great job on pit road with strategy and adjustments.
“I feel like I made a few mistakes today that maybe cost us a shot at the win. I feel like our car was capable of running up front, but I just made too many mistakes.
“I just have to clean up a few things on my end and I’m sure we’ll come back next weekend with another shot.”
The NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway was the final time the series would compete on the 2.0-mile superspeedway. NASCAR has plans to turn it into a half-mile short track, but the timetable on when that would be completed remains to be determined. A lengthy and complicated approval process with State of California government officials remains, and it may be a few years before that track becomes a reality.
Suarez is one driver who will miss the massive, 2.0-mile superspeedway.
"I love racing there,” he said. “The track is so fast and wide. The restarts are amazing. We were so close there last year despite hitting the wall.
“I love that race track. I love that race track,” he emphasized. “I love that place. The community there always makes me feel like home.
“With that being said, I hope everything is to make things better, make the sport better.
“Another hope is that we come back soon because that's amazing place for me. Personally, those fans, that community makes me feel like home. The Hispanic community there is huge.
“Even though that I wish that the racetrack stays the same, I know that that won't happen. I'm going to enjoy it one more time and hopefully - hopefully - we come back very soon.”
No matter what the future holds for this facility, Suarez believes it’s extremely important for a NASCAR Cup Series race to remain in the Southern California market.
“Definitely, definitely,” he said. “For me it's very important because the community there is unbelievable. There are so many great fans. I have enjoyed racing there a lot.
“I think it will be very sad if we wouldn't come back. I don't think that's going to happen, though. But I think definitely there is going to be a main change. I just hope that transition happens quick, and we can come back and don't miss anything else.”