PHOENIX — Ross Chastain has spent much of his young career overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations.
However, the 29-year-old Floridian’s singular clutch move to qualify for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway wasn’t even an expectation, it was a once-an-era moment that will undoubtedly go down in NASCAR lore.
And Chastain himself still can’t help but smile when he talks about it.
His last lap, last-ditch effort to make his first title field is one of the most talked-about, tweeted-about, replayed moves in recent history.
With less than one lap to go at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last Sunday, he purposely slammed his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet hard into the outside wall, floored the gas and “walled” his way from the 10th position to finish fifth place — enough to secure the final playoff transfer into Sunday’s Championship Race.
This week Chastain said he’s heard from people he hasn’t talked to in years, or ever before. His phone is full of voicemails, and he counted a thousand text messages. Team co-owner, Grammy Award-winning superstar Pitbull, called, too.
“He checks in, more than just for the wins and good races,” Chastain said of Pitbull. “He loves it that we’re up against some real giants in the sports and we keep fighting and we keep winning. Not that we won the race in Martinsville, but we won the moment to transfer, and he was really excited.”
Chastain said he has looked back at the video and still cannot explain the physics of his move, “what happened, why that car did not slow down, why it kept air in the tires,” — how he made it to the finish line and actually set a track record.
“Why it worked, I don’t know, but I have no ideas, no plans to ever do that again because it was not pleasant,” he said.
“I’m proud of it, I’m proud we’ve moved the needle for fans and casual people that were not fans and now they want to experience NASCAR and come to track and feel that roar that thunder when we go by,” Chastain said, noting how members from other teams came out to congratulate him and give him back slaps when came down pit road after the race.
Chastain is optimistic about his title hopes this weekend. His best finish in eight starts is a runner-up showing this spring. He is having a breakout year with the second-year Trackhouse organization scoring his first two career NASCAR Cup Series wins (at Circuit of The Americas and Talladega-1). He has a career high 20 top-10 finishes and led a career high 692 laps.
Chase Elliott brings high expectations to Phoenix
Chase Elliott refused to select a favorite from among his Championship 4 colleagues during Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day press conference, insisting that after a 35-race season to date if you qualified for this weekend’s Championship Race, you could be the champion.
Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will compete against Chastain, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell and Team Penske’s Joey Logano for the season trophy on Sunday. Both Elliott and Logano are racing for their second championship. Both Chastain and Bell are making their Championship 4 debut this weekend.
Elliott has a strong record at Phoenix — winning the 2020 title race from pole position to claim his first title. He has scored eight top-10s in 13 starts and led 546 laps at the one-mile track. He comes into the championship finale with only a pair of top-10 finishes in the nine playoff races — a win at Talladega, Ala., and a runner-up at Bristol, Tenn.
“Personally, being a part of it the last couple years and as this format has kind of progressed and changed, I think if you make it to that last race, I think you have a shot,” Elliott said. “If you’re in the Final Four, I think you have a chance.
“We’ve seen this, you don’t have to dominate all day to win (the title). … What Jimmie (Johnson) did in 2016 is a great example of not necessarily being the best car all day but when it came time to execute at the end of the day, put together some good restarts, some good pit stops and make it happen, they did.
“Our playoffs hasn’t been great, but with this format, it really doesn’t matter now. If you’re part of the show, you’re part of the show. And if you have a shot this weekend, you have a shot to change the narrative and write the end of the story however you want.”
Both Logano (Las Vegas) and Bell (Martinsville, Va.) won races in the Playoffs’ Round of 8 to earn their title opportunity. Elliott and Chastain “pointed” their way into championship contention.
In a rather unusual twist, the Hendrick Motorsports team could capture both the driver and team championship but with different drivers. Elliott is racing for the driver’s title and Kyle Larson qualified the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet for the team owner’s championship.
“The best thing that could happen is one of us wins the race and the other runs second and you can check both boxes and we all go home happy,” Elliott said. “That would be choice number one for me, and I think that’s feasible.”
For Joey Logano, nothing short of a championship will do
To say Joey Logano is optimistic about the way circumstances have played out over the past three weeks would be a massive understatement.
First of all, Logano won the first race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 8 on Oct. 16 at Las Vegas. The certainty of advancement to the Championship 4 has given his No. 22 Team Penske team the luxury of extra time to prepare for Sunday’s title race at Phoenix.
At 32, Logano is the oldest of the four Championship 4 drivers. With 14 full seasons in the Cup Series and 506 races under his belt, he is by far the most experienced.
For Logano, it’s an opportunity not to waste.
“I feel like we’re in a great spot right now,” Logano said on Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day interviews at the Phoenix Convention Center. “I feel like our team is in a great spot for a lot of reasons. For one, we’re not happy to be here. We’re not just happy to be in the Championship 4. This isn’t enough for us.
“I feel like that’s the number one driver for the 22 team to win this thing. I think with that mentality and the three weeks that we’ve had since Vegas to really focus in here, it’s going to give us a huge advantage to not only have a good practice plan and set our car up, but also execute this race correctly, on top of the experience we’ve got.
“I’ve never felt more solid in this position than I do right now. With that said, I’m ready to go racing and get out there, because we feel prepared. We’re ready to go to battle.”
Christopher Bell is OK with relative obscurity
Given the dramatic way Christopher Bell advanced to the Championship 4, it might seem strange that the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota thinks of himself as completely under the radar.
In a win-or-bust situation at the Charlotte ROVAL on Oct. 9, Bell took advantage of a late caution, won the race and catapulted into the Round of 8.
After sustaining two flat tires a week later at Texas and finishing 11th a week later at Homestead-Miami, Bell once again needed a victory to keep his championship hopes alive. He took control of the Round of 8 elimination race shortly after the halfway point and triumphed once again.
Bell comes to Phoenix with crew chief Adam Stevens on his pit box. Stevens is the only active crew chief in the Cup garage with more than one championship, having won titles with Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2019.
But Bell thinks Stevens may be overlooked this season — because of his driver.
“I think that maybe has a lot to do with my role,” Bell said. “Nobody really realizes I drive race cars for a living, for the most part. I embrace that role. I guess I don’t do anything else to advocate myself or anything like that.
“Any time it seems like people are teamed up with me, they’re off the radar.”
Bell says he doesn’t mind the perceived anonymity.
“It’s just kind of the way it’s unfolded over my … I don’t really know how long,” he said. “That’s fine by me. Maybe I’ll be the least famous Cup champion one day.”