AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ross Chastain and Trackhouse Racing became the underdog story that kept on going in 2022. That’s been the story of his entire NASCAR career.
That story continued on Friday, when Chastain, walking through the fan area, began hearing a roar of cheers prior to hopping in the No. 1 Chevrolet to hit the track for practice. Unlike previous weekends, he couldn’t go undercover at the track.
That’s because of the iconic video game move he made at the historic Martinsville Speedway in a last-ditch effort to make the Championship 4. It worked. Chastain was suddenly among the most popular athletes in the world heading into Championship Week.
The crowd surrounding the No. 1 Chevrolet in the garage ranked among the most in the sport all year. The cheers were voracious.
“Our cars were so fast this year,” Chastain said of his season. “They were faster than I’ve ever had in the Cup Series by far. I wanted to take every opportunity, every half of a car width and take it and take the air.”
That tenacity upset some of his fellow competitors. He had an immense summer feud with Denny Hamlin, in which the veteran vowed to get revenge. He never did.
All of Chastain’s success and his unique story led him to Phoenix, his first shot at the championship. In practice, he was quickest. But he qualified the lowest of the four eligible drivers in 25th. After qualifying, he grinned, still believing he had a shot.
Within the first 20 laps, Chastain cracked the top 15. He finished the first stage in 13th. During the second stage, he was 11th. In the sprint to the finish, crew chief Phil Surgen made the necessary adjustments to get the No. 1 car comfortably inside the top 10.
“I never believed that we were out of it,” Chastain added. “[We] fought the balance of our car and knew if we got it right, we were going to have a shot.”
During the final stage, he made contact with Chase Elliott on a restart, as he thought the No. 9 car came across his nose.
The No. 1 crew, which has been remarked as being among the elites in the series, had a slow stop when Chastain pitted with 62 laps to go. When a caution came out for Alex Bowman spinning on the backstretch, the team got redemption and gained him a couple of positions.
On the restart, Chastain’s aggressive nature prevailed and he gained two spots on the first lap. Within the next 10 laps, he was up to third.
Ultimately, he took the checkered flag in third — behind a pair of Team Penske teammates — and second in the championship standings.
And he wasn’t mad when he stepped out of his car for the final time in 2022.
“The emotions are surprisingly good,” Chastain said. “I’m not sad. I’m not upset. I honestly thought when we started the playoffs that if we made it as I go through different scenarios and I do think about what I’m going to think about ahead of time and think about what my thoughts are going to be and what I want them to be, then I try to evaluate as I go.
“I thought if I — like this scenario – lost by a little bit, that I would be really upset, and I’m not. Like I’m so proud and so happy to give our first shot at these playoffs and at racing in the Cup Series with Trackhouse, and we just ran second.”
Team Penske had the competition covered. Combined, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney led 276 of 312 laps with Logano winning his second Cup Series title. Logano is the first Ford driver to win multiple championships for the team since David Pearson won consecutive titles in 1968 and 1969.
Chastain can hang his hat that the No. 1 car was the best it was all race at the end. His season ended on a positive note.
He’s full of gratitude. When losing the Camping World Truck Series championship with Niece Motorsports in 2019, he was distressed. This time around, no tears were shed.
“I am just proud of what we’ve done, and I feel so good,” he said. “I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy with the group I have.
“This is just the beginning. If it all ends today, it’s fine. Really, if I can never race a car again, it’s OK. It was all worth it, and I’m genuinely happy.
“Believe me when I say it, it’s true, because there’s other times where it eats you up as a competitor. But for some reason, it’s not that I’m complacent in second, but I feel good.”
Now, Chastain’s focus shifts to being a better driver in 2023. If he isn’t, he didn’t do his job.
“I feel like I’m on a never-ending hamster wheel to be the best version of myself, and that’s not going to stop,” Chastain said. “I hope that I never lose that drive because I wake up and I think about how can I drive a racecar fast.”
Of the 31 full-time drivers this season, Chastain ended the year with 15 top-five finishes, the most in the field.