Ross Chastain was able to turn a potentially devastating moment in his career to an appreciation of how the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet saved his life.
It happened last year at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
It was during practice on February 26, 2022, when Chastain was racing his No. 1 Casa Del Sol Tequila Camaro Chevrolet from Trackhouse around the massive, 2.0-mile track.
Without warning, his car shot up the track at high speed and slammed into the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier.
It was a head-on collision, and the driver was a bit dazed, but otherwise uninjured.
One year later, Chastain believes the construction of the Next Gen car helped save his life during that brutally hard impact.
“It was the biggest of my career,” Chastain said of the impact. “I don't mean to be morbid, but I think 20 years ago I don't walk away from it the way I do this time in 2022.
“This car saved my life."Ross Chastain
"That track could have taken it all from me. It's not lost on me. I have a respect for this car and a respect for that track. I have a little bit of fear for it, too. I'm glad that I do because it earned my respect real quick that day.”
When asked if he got his “bell rung” that day, Chastain responded, “Oh, yeah.” But he was able to walk away from the crash, clear a medical evaluation and compete in the race the following day.
The car, however, sustained severe damage. Chastain’s Trackhouse crew prepared the backup car and the driver from Alva, Florida had to compete in the race without running any previous laps in the Chevrolet.
Chastain finished 29th, but considering what might have been, he gladly accepted the outcome.
“To use a backup car and start the race without any laps on it was a handful,” Chastain said after that race in 2022. “We were really loose to start, and I was not sure if we’d be able to get on the other side of it.
“My crew chief Phil Surgen and the Trackhouse team kept changing a lot of things on the car and got the balance where I could drive it.
“At the beginning of the race, I was pretty worried that we were just going to be loose and slow all day.
“Obviously, we got a lot better and had a shot at a top-five and I messed up. I made an unforced error running around the sixth spot. I was just riding along and hit a bump wrong and didn’t catch it in time. A mistake on my part.
“Seeing the transition from the beginning of the race to the end, gives me a lot of hope.”
Chastain parlayed that hope into the season of his career. He finished second to NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano in the championship race at Phoenix and finished second in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series standings.
Chastain had an incredible season in 2022 and was named Driver of the Year by the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).
Chastain and Trackhouse return to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for Sunday’s Pala Casino 400.
It will be the final race on the 2.0-mile speedway configuration at the facility that opened as California Speedway in 1997.
Track officials intend to reconfigure the facility to make it a half-mile oval, but that is pending approval from State of California governmental agencies.
According to Auto Club Speedway President David Allen, the date of the reconfiguration process has not been determined, but this will be the last race held on the current superspeedway layout.
Chastain prefers to keep it the way it is.
“I still hope they change their mind again on that and keep it, build another short track somewhere else or put us in another stadium,” Chastain said.
Because of his respect that he has developed for the current oval after his massive crash, he wants to win the trophy for himself and for Trackhouse on Sunday.
He sees the facility as an intimidating foe; one that he wants to conquer.
“I know that I walked away from that crash, and that car saved my life,” Chastain explained. “I'm forever thankful for that.”
Auto Club Speedway has left a mark on Chastain’s career, and it’s a mark the driver remembers and feels every time he drives through Turn 4.
The memories remain vivid to the driver.
“That's what makes that track special now, is that mark in turn four, the bump in turn four that I hit which caused me to get loose, overcorrect, turn the wheel too far to the right, lift off the gas, it caught, I hit the wall head on,” he said. “I remember it for the fact that I was able to take a second, catch my breath, get checked out, drive the next day.
“I don't think 20 years ago that happens.
“I'm so thankful for this car that NASCAR rolled out to provide that for me.”Ross Chastain
NASCAR provided the template and the concept of the current racing machine. But it’s Chastain’s Trackhouse team that meticulously prepares the Chevrolet with precision and expertise, providing an even safer vehicle for the driver.
“It goes deeper into Trackhouse building a safe seat and the seat belts we use; what they recommended I use,” Chastain said. “The boys and girls at Trackhouse take that stuff serious and get all that stuff measured out exactly to hold me in that seat.
“That's the reasons I want to go win at California, just selfishly, not necessarily because it's the last race, but for those memories I have there.”
Chastain and Trackhouse speed into the Inland Empire of California after a ninth-place finish in a wild 65th Daytona 500 on February 19.
Chastain drove a smart race at Daytona International Speedway, with much of the contest running clean and green.
The Trackhouse driver won Stage 2, collected 10 bonus points in this year’s 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
But it ended up in chaos during two rounds of overtime that made it the longest Daytona 500 in history, covering 212 laps instead of the regular 200 and 530 miles.
"We got the Stage 2 win in our AdventHealth Chevy,” Chastain said. “That was 10 more points than we left here with last year.
“With 13 laps to go I was thinking they were going to wreck again, but they didn’t, and I was working to get caught up.
“Then coming to the white flag, they wrecked. I was a little off on my guessing on when they were going to wreck and when they weren’t.
“Proud of everybody at Trackhouse with a top-10 finish. It’s a whole lot better than last year, that’s for sure.”Ross Chastain
Because of his breakthrough season in 2022, including the famed “Hail Melon” move on the last lap at Martinsville Speedway that got him into the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race, there are plenty of expectations on Chastain in 2023.
He has to live in the spotlight, something much different than what he experienced at this stage one year ago.
“Growing,” Chastain said. “I have a lot of growing up to do at 30 years old. I feel like I'm just getting started, so...
“Trying to learn from my mistakes.”
He learned from one of those mistakes last year with his crash at Auto Club Speedway that gave him newfound respect for the facility.
He hopes to put some of that growth on display throughout the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
He is also realistic. He knows that he can be a better driver in 2023, but potentially not have the same results he achieved in 2022.
“Last year, with my level of experience, I had a new car, the unknown of a new car and new team to lean on,” Chastain said. “I had confidence that my group from the 42 transitioned into Trackhouse in the 1 car was going to be good.
“I know I have less confidence right now because this series is so humbling, this sport is so competitive, especially at this level nothing is guaranteed.
“I feel like I have more work to do now than I did a year ago to sustain what we were able to accomplish last year.”
He hopes to accomplish even more with his Trackhouse team.
“What's selfishly so cool for me is I'm doing it with my people,” Chastain said. “That's what really makes it that much more special now that we've accomplished some pretty cool things.”