Florida’s Ross Chastain aims to clinch Champ 4 spot after tumultuous 2022

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — On the west side of Florida, there‘s a watermelon farm included among the many parties still picking up the pieces from last month‘s Category 4 Hurricane Ian. On the opposite coast just a hair under 200 miles away, a driver that grew up on said farm is hoping he can give his family a bit of a break and a few reasons to smile before getting back to a cleanup and rebuild process that “is going to be for years.”

Though not comparable in any way to the seriousness of the devastation caused by Ian, Ross Chastain‘s 2022 emergence has been, proverbially, as disruptive to the NASCAR Cup Series‘ “old guard” as he‘s burst onto the scene this season to turn in career highs in just about every statistical measure. As such, the two-time 2022 winner enters Sunday‘s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the Round of 8 competitor best positioned to advance to the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

Not bad for a driver that‘s never even sniffed a playoff appearance before this season, let alone a win.

“A lot of my family is here for my race and Chad‘s (Chastain’s brother) race this weekend. They‘re just like ‘we‘re ready to take a break,‘ “ Chastain said Saturday morning at Homestead. “… They just wanted to come enjoy the race and it‘ll all be there on Monday when we drive back. But they just keep telling me that I won‘t believe it when I do see it, even when I come back after Phoenix at some point. They are like, you will not be able to comprehend what it looks like. It just looks like another country; something you would see on the news, on TV or online.

“For the farm, we pretty much survived. There‘s some damage and some pull barns are down, but our main facility stayed up and offices are in working order. We‘ll be shipping watermelons just like we always have.”

For much of the season, Chastain has found himself in the eye of the storm on the race track — most often of his own doing — with much speculation and weekly prompts from media about potential retribution from his many run-ins with front-of-the-field drivers. Yet here he is, methodically turning in solid performance after solid performance in the playoffs, slipping through the crosshairs of his competitors with as good a chance to advance as any of the other seven Round of 8 drivers not locked into Phoenix.

The No. 1 Trackhouse Racing driver isn‘t unaware of any of this, knowing he had to evolve as the season progressed if he wanted to make a legitimate title run. And he‘s doing it.

“I think that is what is so great about this sport, is that every seven days we pack up and move the circus to another town and we do it all again,” Chastain said. “I feel like I am in a good spot in the garage. The summer was definitely tough, and I learned a lot from a lot of that and we will continue to learn and evolve throughout this sport and this series. It‘s incredible to race against your heroes, but it‘s kind of odd and humbling when your heroes get mad at you. So, it‘s been a learning experience for sure.”

One of those heroes — and perhaps most notable among his ‘22 foes — is Denny Hamlin.

There was a period earlier this season where it seemed the Nos. 1 and 11 cars could not escape each other, with aggression running high, tempers poking through and payback surely coming Chastain‘s way come playoff time delivered by one of NASCAR‘s most tenured drivers.

But we haven‘t seen that yet — and we may not at all.

Knowing he has a promising Cup career ahead of him and that sudden powerhouse Trackhouse Racing is “not just a flash in the pan,” Chastain wanted to ensure that he found some mutual respect or at least common ground with some of those he‘d earned the ire of.

So he shared a meal with the 48-time Cup Series winner.

MORE: Chastain battles Hamlin at Pocono | Chastain explains Atlanta incident

“I won’t elaborate too much on it, but, you know, I wanted to kind of give him the benefit of the doubt and kind of hear where he was coming from,” Hamlin said Saturday of the summer meeting with Chastain, which the Joe Gibbs Racing driver recently revealed on former Cup driver Danica Patrick‘s podcast. “And it was interesting to kind of hear, you know, his upbringing versus my upbringing and why we probably have different values on the race track than what we do, and so it was just good to hear that.”

ross chastain races denny hamlin

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Now, don‘t go ahead and assume these two will exactly “play nice” with each other — there‘s a strong possibility they‘ll each be battling for their first Cup title in two weeks’ time, and all bets are off there — but the respect of his elders obviously matters to Chastain, even if he doesn‘t always appear to outwardly display it.

MORE: Revisiting regular-season rivalries

Like Hamlin, Chastain doesn‘t come from a pureblood “racing family,” having to grind his way to the top along a winding career path full of twists, turns, teams and a whopping 402 mostly unfruitful (pun semi-intended) national series starts before 2022.

Earning respect on the race track is a difficult task when a driver is forced to scratch, claw and bump his way to the top — against the very same people he‘s trying to earn the respect of. These are all stepping stones in that evolution process, however, and he‘s literally grown up right in front of our eyes this season to round into the championship form behind the wheel and behind the microphone that we‘re currently seeing.

“We are known in South Florida for farming and agriculture. We are not known for racing. The Chastain family is not a namesake in the sport, so I didn‘t come in with a predisposed reputation of my dad,” Chastain said. “My dad raced locally down here in South Florida, but it wasn‘t on this stage. So, we have built up our fanbase kind of at a grassroots level through the Melon Man Brand and through my racing in the last decade in this sport. … Along the way, I didn‘t do myself any favors in those moments in the summer when the spotlight was on us, and I got out and my post-race interviews were not appealing. I look back and I wouldn‘t root for that guy. That guy drives one way and he talks another, and he doesn‘t know what he wants and he apologizes. So yeah, I get it and that is part of the evolution, I think.”

And that‘s all he can do — own up to his mistakes, learn from them and try to get better tomorrow. It‘s refreshing for a driver to openly talk about this much in-season introspection, and it likely bodes extremely well for the long-term prospects of his racing career.

“I take each lap and build my notebook throughout the weekend, my race, my career and my life,” said Chastain, set to roll off 20th on Sunday. “ … But it feels good … it feels really good to see the smiles of my family and friends. Guys that let me drive race cars when I was 14 years old. There were only a few that weren‘t my dad and a couple of those guys are here. Just enjoying the weekend living out all of our dreams of racing in the Cup Series. It was their dreams, too, and they‘re living it through me.”

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