Up and down the NASCAR Cup Series playoff ladder, drivers and crews circled the second round as the most challenging.
And with good reason.
The Round of 12 presented three hurdles at wildly different landscapes. First up was the very fast 1.5 miles of Texas Motor Speedway, an unpredictable track on the best of days.
Second was the potential for calamity at Talladega Superspeedway, where pack racing and multi-car accidents can quickly turn a great day into a mess. And finally came the twists and turns of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, still a relatively new element on the Cup scene and one that remains somewhat of a mystery to much of the field.
In other words, the second round of the playoffs required heightened awareness, better preparation and – not the least – good luck.
For Trackhouse Racing playoff driver Ross Chastain, the round developed into a crazy mix of success and disappointment.
Chastain finished a solid second in the round opener at Texas, but it was far from a breeze. On lap 168, he was running eighth when he dropped onto pit road and ran into trouble.
Chastain’s car stalled, and he finally returned to the track in 26th.
“It was terrible,” he said later. “You push the gas, and it ain’t got no gas. … It wouldn’t go. From there, they walked me through it, and basically I just had to give it a lot of throttle, so the next pit stop was just a whole lot of throttle.”
The rest of the race meant four-tire changes and a run through the field to reach second, a remarkable rebound from the trouble.
“We just worked our way back by taking four tires a lot and some bad restarts on my side, but we had the speed, and we showed it all weekend.”
Chastain and his team left Texas sixth in points.
Next: Talladega. And more trouble.
On lap 59, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appeared to run out of fuel near the front of the pack, causing cars behind him to slow down dramatically. Chastain was caught up in the wake, was hit by Kyle Busch and spun into the outside wall. He then was hit by Christopher Bell.
Damage to the No. 1 Chevrolet’s right front fender and suspension forced Chastain to park for the day, and he finished 37th.
“It’s just the way it goes,” Chastain said after the race. “Nothing personal with it. I could have stayed on the bottom a few laps earlier probably and would have been safer. I just had a couple of cars land in my lap there, and I went for the gap. Obviously, I wish I would have lifted now, but I’ll study that and be better next time.”
After Talladega, Chastain fell to 11th (of 12) places in playoff points and was 10 points behind the cutline entering the final race of the round at the Charlotte Roval.
At Charlotte, Chastain scored points in the first and second stages and ran well throughout Sunday’s Roval race, but he finished 10th and failed to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
The finish was the best of Chastain’s career at the tricky CMS road course.
“We knew coming in that it was going to be tough,” Chastain said. “We put together a heck of a day for us on road courses this year in this No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevy. Lately, we’ve just been lacking speed, and I can’t get over the curbs. There’s a lot of reasons. We’ve reverted on some of that through Watkins Glen (International) and to here (Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval), and it’s really paid off. I’m excited with the gains we’ve made. We came out of the box super strong in 2022 – won the first road course race in the Next Gen car. And then it just slowly kind of stepped back all the way until mid-season this year.”
Next on the schedule is Las Vegas, with races remaining at Miami, Florida; Martinsville, Virginia and Phoenix. There is more work to be done.
“I can’t wait to get to work in the morning, to Las Vegas and every race after that,” Chastain said.