NASCAR's Ross Chastain leaves more wrecks, ill will in his wake at Darlington
By PETE IACOBELLI
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) Rick Hendrick sees the enormous talent in Ross Chastain. The veteran team owner also sees Chastain's sometimes reckless style that leaves damaged cars and angry competitors in his wake.
Chastain's late crash off a restart took himself and Hendrick star driver Kyle Larson out of contention as they were racing for the lead at Darlington over the weekend. An earlier tangle with Chastain ended the chances of another NASCAR champion, pole sitter Martin Truex Jr., who had led 145 of the first 151 laps at the Goodyear 400.
The wreck with Larson helped another Hendrick racer, William Byron, grab the lead and hold off Kevin Harvick for his third victory this season.
But it was Chastain's actions that again stole NASCAR's show. Hendrick said he believes the Trackhouse Racing driver has crossed a line.
“You just don't run people up in the fence,” Hendrick said. “He's going to make a lot of enemies and it's hard to win a championship when you've got a lot of paybacks out there.”
Those paybacks are piling up - and Trackhouse Racing co-owner Justin Marks is paying attention.
Marks said on SiriusXM's NASCAR Radio this week that he will be more hands-on in ensuring Chastain races the right way.
“I'm going to take a more active role,” Marks said. “I love the kid and I love the opportunity he's giving every single person who works at Trackhouse to put a championship run together. But there's stuff that needs to be cleaned up and it's a process he going to have to start going through sooner rather than later.”
Marks said he has spoken with Chastain, the organization's partners and the team about the driver's recent run-ins.
Chastain was confronted by Noah Gragson in the pits at Kansas two races back. That's where Hendrick driver Chase Elliott was caught on tape while walking by Gragson saying, “Somebody's got to do it.” Chastain punched Gragson before NASCAR security broke things up.
Denny Hamlin was fined and docked points for acknowledging he intentionally didn't yield when racing Chastain for a better finish at Phoenix two months ago.
“No, it wasn't a mistake,” Hamlin said on his podcast a few days later. “I let the wheel go, and said, ‘He’s coming with me.'”
At Darlington, points leader Chastain had a fast, contending car - he led 93 of the 295 laps - and raced hard to get to the front. He was leading as the second stage ended with Truex closing in down low. Chastain bounced off the wall, clipped Truex and sent him sliding.
“There was plenty of room there and he just bounced off the wall and hit me," said Truex, the 2017 series champion who finished 31st.
After Chastain and Larson crashed, Larson's crew chief Cliff Daniels said angrily on the radio that Chastain had taken his driver out of three potential wins at Talladega and Dover before Darlington. He also noted that it was a Chevrolet driver taking out a fellow Chevy.
“He's got all the talent,” Hendrick said of Chastain. “He just doesn't know when to race.”
Chastain acknowledged his plan to hem Larson in against the wall on Sunday's late restart so Chastain could move in front and potentially go on to his first NASCAR win since spring 2022 at Talladega - a drought that now stands at 39 races.
“We all go race and I fully committed into (turn) one and wanted to squeeze him up, I didn’t want to turn myself across his nose for sure,” he said outside the track medical center. “That’s not how I wanted to be talking to y’all here."
Chastain finished 20th. Larson ended 29th.
The 30-year-old Chastain, in his second full Cup Series season with Trackhouse, said the day before the race that he was comfortable making competitors uncomfortable on the track. Chastain said he and Gragson talked early last week about their dustup and put it behind them.
He is gradually accepting his style won't endear him to some.
“It’s something I’m growing into off the track,” Chastain said. “Being myself in the best thing I can do and if people like it, they do.”
Kyle Busch said he has talked with Chastain in the past about not being the headline each week, advice apparently not heeded. “I don't know the guy,” Busch said. “I don't need to know the guy.”
Hendrick said he doesn't believe the bad feelings will be smoothed over by NASCAR, manufacturers or others outside the track. He said the drivers are the ones who can best police the sport.
“Having multiple incidents," Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon said, "it's a long list that Ross is now a part of.”
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Updated May 16, 2023