Working back through the confluence of events that finally opened the opportunity for a high-level seat in the NASCAR Cup Series to Ross Chastain is enough to leave anyone dizzy. Of course, Chastain — now the guy who will wheel Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42 this season — wouldn't have it any other way.
"I wouldn't trade my path for anything, but I also would not wish it on anybody because most people would not have done it," Chastain says.
The path for Chastain to a ride where he can and will be expected to visit Cup Series Victory Lane began with a 10th-place finish in a Stacy Compton-owned Chevrolet Silverado in the summer of 2011. That night at the half-mile Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Chastain made his first NASCAR national series start as an 18-year-old best known as the kid with watermelon sponsorship. Since then, Chastain — an actual Florida watermelon farmer — has made 360 more starts across all three of NASCAR's top tiers with a wide assortment of teams.
Along the way, Chastain faced brutal disappointment. After promising part-time outings in 2018, Chastain signed up for a full-season effort with Ganassi in 2019. But in the offseason, the head of his primary sponsor DC Solar was arrested for financial fraud. The sponsorship checks never came, and Ganassi closed the team before the season began.
But Chastain found a way to shift gears to stay relevant in 2019. He enlisted sponsors and open opportunities to ultimately run a part-time schedule in the Xfinity Series while making 35 starts for Jay Robinson's bottom-tier Cup Series team. Chastain also worked into a full-time Camping World Truck Series ride with Niece Motorsports that ended with Chastain missing the postseason title by two points. In all, Chastain made 77 starts in 2019.
Last season, Chastain moved to a full-time ride with Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series and delivered his strongest season yet. The team never won a race, but Chastain did land 15 top-5 finishes in 33 starts with an average result of 8.2. The timing of his results proved fortuitous when Ganassi, who still held a driver development contract with Chastain, opted to sign the 28-year-old to the No. 42 for 2021 as its permanent driver. Chastain replaces Matt Kenseth, who took over the car in May following the sudden firing of Kyle Larson from the team for using a racial slur.
After a decade of clawing to get this type of Cup opportunity, the 2021 season will present a new type of pressure for Chastain. It'll be his first experience with what he calls a "fully funded, fully capable" Cup team. There will be new expectations right away, with a top priority of bringing the No. 42 on par with teammate Kurt Busch.
Busch, though, lauds the Chastain choice — with a measure of well-learned advice thrown in for the Florida driver who isn't afraid to get aggressive on track.
"He's a great choice. He's young, a hard charger. He's a go-getter," says Busch. "His work ethic has never been questioned. We just have to refine him a little bit as he's gaining this Cup Series experience. Things that happen in Xfinity — sometimes you got to leave them there and start all over. But he's a very deserving kid to get this chance."
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 70/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)