For 16 drivers and crews, Sunday Night’s Cookout Southern 500 offers a fresh start to the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season. The Labor Day Weekend tradition at Darlington Raceway is the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and for the 16 that have made it, the goal is to celebrate the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix on November 5.
One of those in the “Sweet 16” is Trackhouse star Ross Chastain.
He made it to the “Championship Four” in last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and finished second in the Championship Race to 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano of Team Penske.
Sunday night’s race is also important for the driver of the No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet.
The 31-year-old driver from Alva, Florida is seeking “Redemption at Darlington” at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval located in South Carolina’s famed “Pee Dee” Region.
It was at Darlington on May 14 when Chastain was one of the stars of the race, leading 93 laps and in great position to win. But on a restart with six laps left in regulation in the race, Chastain and Kyle Larson were in the front row heading through the Turns 1 and 2.
The tight race ended in contact between the two cars, with Chastain’s hitting the wall and Larson’s damaged Chevrolet able to continue to the finish.
“Full commitment into (Turn) 1, and I got really tight and drove up and turned myself,” Chastain said of what happened. “I wanted to squeeze him. I wanted to push him up. We had been trading back and forth all day, and I wanted to push him up for sure but definitely didn’t want to turn myself into the wall.”
Chastain was criticized for the incident and for what some perceived his overly aggressive driving. The Trackhouse driver took the criticism to heart and used it as a way to improve his ability as a racer.
It paid off with a victory at Nashville Superspeedway on June 25 as Chastain drove a more cerebral race, combined with his aggressive style.
Chastain admitted he learned a valuable lesson at Darlington and that sometimes, the most important lessons are the hardest.
Chastain is seeking “Redemption at Darlington.”
“What happened in the Spring, caused me not to win and I don’t like to lose,” Chastain said as he enters this weekend’s activity at Darlington. “So, I am not going to do that again, but I am still going to go race.”
Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick was upset to see another incident between Chastain and one of his drivers, but he was also quick to offer some advice.
It came in an early-morning phone call between the two.
“I did have some sleepless nights afterward,” Chastain admitted. “I learned a lot from that too and talking to Mr. Hendrick was some really cool conversations and he was great, and he had some great advice.
“I live by some of the words that he was nice enough to give me that early morning we talked. I will never forget that conversation, good or bad. I don’t like the reason that it came about, but I liked that talk and I listened. I have taken what he said to heart, and I am better for it.”
In the process, Chastain has regained some respect and trust from his fellow competitors.
“Kyle Larson and I have had some great battles this year,” Chastain said. “We were side by side a couple of times late in the race at Watkins Glen and then at the end of the race it wasn’t me that was running into everybody at the end.”
Chastain begins the race in eighth place of the 16-driver playoff field, but just four points ahead of the final transfer position.
A victory automatically moves the No. 1 team into the second round of the playoffs.
The field of 16 will be whittled down to 12 drivers after Darlington, the Sept. 10 race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City and the Sept. 16 race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
"I love going to Darlington,” Chastain said. “For whatever reason, it’s one of the tracks that I've always liked. It’s one of our crown jewel race tracks and everyone wants to a get a win there. It's a challenging track, but man, when you have a car that drives good there, there isn't anything better.”
Chastain is confident his No. 1 WWEX Chevrolet will be one of the best in the field as the crew back at Trackhouse in Concord, North Carolina have meticulously prepared a race-winning machine.
"We started getting ready for Darlington the week before we went to Daytona," Chastain said. “We have been focused on this time of year. The playoffs are when we want to shine, and everyone wants to get off on the right foot at Darlington.
"It's important to get the playoffs started on the right foot. Get some points and have a strong car because it can really set the tone for that round. We started working on Darlington stuff a couple of weeks ago already. Working in the simulator, working on the setup and things like that. Obviously, we ran well there in Spring, so I feel like we have a good understanding of how the car needs to be.
“Everyone wants to do well at Darlington, no one wants to find themselves in a desperate situation at the end of the first round.”
Chastain started off very strong in 2023, but during the summer months has settled into a competitive level that he realizes he has to raise entering the Playoffs.
“I see the stats and we have looked at it,” Chastain said. “We looked at it with GM just this week of just how the season played out compared to last year and it’s just a very glaring thing when you look at finishing position.
“But there is a lot more to be said for average running position and I am not finishing where we are running. The pace can be argued (that it) was better last year, but running position was similar.
“There are a lot of things and details that you can dig into and see, and we just did that this week. Honestly, it made me feel okay because I know where we can be better. I know that I can be better at finishing these races and I have got to tell you that I was a whole lot more nervous sitting up here last time I was at this desk announcing our contract extension and new contract than I am right now going into the playoffs.
“That is a really cool feeling. Those were nerves and pressure for another reason in getting it out and another worst kept secret, second worst kept secret that we had this year. I had more pressure sitting up here then than I do now with Darlington, Kansas and Bristol coming up this month.”
There is plenty of pressure just making it into the 16-driver field. This weekend at Darlington serves as a reset point and a new beginning, but the pressure becomes important over the next three races before another cutoff point that determines the round of 12. Three races after that, the cutoff becomes the round of eight.
The three races after that point determine the four drivers in NASCAR’s “Championship Four” that compete for the title in the NASCAR Championship Race at Phoenix.
“To a certain extent, the slate is wiped clean,” Trackhouse owner Justin Marks said. “If there is anything in the previous part of the season or previous section of races that you have missed on, you have an opportunity to reshuffle the deck and approach it with some fresh eyes.
“That is one of the great things about our sport. We race every single week so when things aren’t going your way, every single Monday morning is a new opportunity.
“Honestly, my hope is NASCAR puts a playoff together that is really compelling for the fans and it’s really dramatic and gets eyeballs on TV. Everybody has their ideas what they would like to see based on their strengths and weaknesses.
“I don’t generally love a Playoff race being one where there is a lot of circumstances and luck involved, but that is where the drama comes.”
Here comes the pressure and Chastain loves the pressure.
“I actually do think about that because I was a fan, and I did follow the points whenever it was five points for a position and season-long points, and you got points for being last and you have all this other stuff,” he explained. “Now it’s easy to see over the past weeks we have fallen from being the points leader, to being 100 points out now.
“I don’t think with 11 races to go we would have a realistic shot to win a championship.
“So, I love it because it gives us a real shot. I love it because it allows for me to have a shot. I have had the points lead, lost it, and given up over 100 points.
“We wouldn’t have a shot without it.”
By having a shot at it, Chastain and Trackhouse still have time to make up the “235 Feet” that Logano defeated Chastain for last year’s championship.
The Playoffs are here and over the next 10 races, there will be plot twists and turns that will determine who celebrates the NASCAR Cup Series Championship on November 5.