The first round of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has concluded and for Trackhouse driver Ross Chastain, it was “Survive and Advance.”
The driver of the No. 1 WWEX Chevrolet was able to survive the cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway and advance into the Round of 12.
The next round begins at Texas Motor Speedway on September 24, continues at Talladega Superspeedway on October 1 and then another cutoff race in the BankofAmerica ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 8.
Chastain was one of 16 drivers that made the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field by winning the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 25.
The 31-year-old from Alva, Florida opened the playoffs with a fifth-place finish in the September 3 Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington on September 3 followed by a 13th-place finish in the 2023 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
That brought Trackhouse into the first cutoff race of the Playoffs, the September 16 Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where four drivers would be eliminated from playoff contention and 12 would move on.
Chastain’s team was 18 points above the final transfer position, but on the high-banked, concrete, short track at Bristol, heavy contact is often the norm, and it can be a race of survival of the fittest.
Chastain wasn’t in immediate jeopardy, but he was far from being safely in the next round, especially after qualifying 23rd in the No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet.
Survive and advance.
Just two hours before the start of the race, Trackhouse owner and founder was asked to size up the challenge that awaited the team under the lights at Bristol.
“Right now, we have a great opportunity in front of us to transfer,” Marks said. “We have a couple of points ahead the cutline. We have a little bit of a hill to climb because we didn’t qualify that well with Ross, but there are a lot of different ways the race can play out.
“There is strategy. There are ways for us to get stage points. We are going to keep a close eye on everybody else in the race.
“All you do is try to do the best you can in that moment.
“We have one objective tonight and we are all singularly focused on that.”
That singular focus meant claiming extra points through stage finishes.
Once the race finally got underway following a brief stoppage for light rain, Chastain had raced his way up to 19th in the first 20 laps. But by Lap 50, Chastain was still 19th and needed to find a way to move forward.
The first decision came when AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric collided on the front straight for the first on-track caution of the contest.
It was decision time for Trackhouse.
Crew chief Phil Surgen decided to stay out of the pits instead of taking advantage of the caution period for a pit stop.
Corey LaJoie, Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Todd Gilliland all made the same decision as Chastain.
When racing resumed with 49 laps left in Stage 1, Chastain was fifth.
Christopher Bell would end up winning Stage 1 on Lap 125 and Surgen’s strategy earned Chastain five stage points to cushion his points total above the transfer position.
That strategy earned him the extra points, but it also meant he had to pit during the caution period that ended Stage 1. The 99 Chevrolet rolled down pit lane on Lap 130 for fresh tires and fuel and returned to the track in 31st position.
The gamble gave Chastain more points, but the tradeoff came in track position that would determine his outcome at the end of the race.
“We couldn’t pass up grabbing a handful of points,” Chastain said afterwards. “You never know how these races will play out. We took them and took our lumps later and never quite recovered.”
When Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports was in the lead, the two adversaries from earlier this season at Darlington ran side-by-side for five straight laps as Chastain was trying to keep from getting lapped. But Larson was able to put Chastain one lap down on Lap 188.
By the end of the race, Chastain fought his way back to where he started with a 23rd place finish.
But it was more than enough for the Trackhouse driver to “Survive and Advance.”
“It didn’t end up mattering,” said of his battle with Larson to stay on the lead lap. “We were a couple down, but that was fine. There were other drivers that had issues as well and we had enough points.”
Chastain was among the 12 drivers that continues their fight for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship, but for defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano of Team Penske, Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing, Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Daugherty Racing and Indianapolis Motor Speedway winner Michael McDowell of Front Row, they were eliminated from the playoffs.
That is what makes the cutoff races so stressful, even for the drivers that “survive and advance.”
“Yes, because you never know,” Chastain explained. “We were one wreck away in Turn 3 that the 22 (Joey Logano) got caught up in. He (LaJoie’s sliding car) was in my mirror coming off Turn 2. I cleared the wreck, and the wreck came back up and got him.
“Not fair to him and it’s not fair that I made it through, but that’s life.”
When NASCAR devised its Playoff schedule, it placed the three cutoff races in the playoffs at the most challenging venues. That includes Bristol, the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the home of the “Hail Melon” – Martinsville Speedway, where the Championship Four will be determined on October 29.
“They are all in perfect spots,” Chastain said. “That is what puts people in these seats. As a fan, I still am a bit of a fan here, it’s worth the watch, to tune in, for these cutoffs especially.
“It’s simple math. You just need more points. Drama or not, the drama is do you make it through the wreck and do you have enough points.
“We did that tonight.”
Chastain’s crew chief had a strategy for the Stage 1 points, believing the extra points were more important than track position early.
NASCAR races at Bristol tend to have a lot of action and lots of yellow flags. But Saturday’s race was not yellow-centric, with long stretches of green flag racing, including the end when Denny Hamlin led the final 141 of the final 142 laps to claim the 51st victory of his career.
“Ultimately, the stage points weren’t the difference maker today, but you can never give up points when you have the opportunity get them,” Surgen said. “We didn’t know how the rest of that race would unfold, whether it was damage or mechanical or whatever it might be, so we took the points when we had the opportunity.
“Unfortunately, today, that set our track position back quite a lot early in the race. We got trapped a lap down and could never really recover from that. It hurt our race finish quite a lot.
“Had things unfolded a little bit differently, that could have been the difference maker for us.”
Surgen also wasn’t nervous during the five-lap, side-by-side battle involving Chastain and Larson. The two have a history, including the famed crash while both were battling for the lead at Darlington in May.
“The way the two grooves are here, the race track is dominated by one lane,” Surgen explained. “Sometimes it’s the bottom and sometimes it can be the top and it’s really hard to pass. Fortunately, the grooves are far enough apart that each of them was giving each other room.
“They know it’s going to be hard to pass and they know we are trying to stay on the lead lap.”
Survive and advance.
That’s why Chastain and Trackhouse needed to do and it’s off to the next round.
“Certainly, you have to survive and advance just to be part of the picture,” Surgen said. “You also like to think there is a point where you need stage wins and race wins to pad your playoff points for the next round. Ultimately, performance does matter beyond transferring and hit helps us build the notebook.”
Trackhouse and Chastain are off to Texas, then Talladega before the next cutoff race on the Charlotte Roval.
If the team wins one of the next three races, they automatically advance into the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Otherwise, they must survive through points in order to advance.
“I feel good about all of the tracks in terms of driver and car strength,” Surgen said. “At Texas, we had a really good run at Kansas and that makes us feel better about Texas. The Roval can be a wild card, especially bringing the stage breaks back. We will be in a similar situation there to where we take points, it’s like going to the.
“And then Talladega, we all know Talladega is a wild card as it is.”
The Saturday night battle was over and Trackhouse advance. The next day was time for a mental reset followed by Monday morning back at the Trackhouse shop in Concord, North Carolina to prepare for the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
“Definitely a good mental reset, particularly after a night like tonight,” Surgen said. “Congratulations to the whole Trackhouse team on transferring, but it wasn’t a really good performance for us tonight. We can wash that out of our mind and focus on the next few. We’ll get back to Bristol sometime in the offseason.
“For now, the reset is good for everybody for a lot of reasons.”
The team’s ultimate goal is to be in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Four that will fight it out for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix on November 5.
Last year, Chastain fell short of winning the Cup title by 235 feet to Logano.
Chastain’s season continues, but Logano became the first reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion eliminated in the first round of the Playoffs the next season.
Outside of the Trackhouse shop in Concord, North Carolina, there is a 235-foot stretch of pavement painted as a challenge to all Trackhouse employees to make up the difference in 2023 for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
“We drive over it every time we show up at the shop and every time we leave,” Surgen explained. “Different people use that differently.
“It’s certainly a reminder. Before the playoffs, we had an all-shop meeting out there with Justin. It’s a good reminder. We got there last year. We performed well. We came up a little bit short and there is no reason why we can’t get back there again this year.”
Trackhouse is a team and everybody at the operation has played a role in the success.
But ultimately, Chastain is the man behind the wheel in the heat of battle that must find a way to “Survive and Advance.”
“We start that process tomorrow,” Chastain said Saturday night. “We take tonight. Head home. Get after it tomorrow and head to Texas for next weekend.
“I wouldn’t count us out.”