Less than four years ago, Ross Chastain's NASCAR career was on life support. A full-time deal to run the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Chip Ganassi went sour after primary sponsor DC Solar became the subject of a FBI raid in December 2018. It looked like a road to the Cup Series was a glass ceiling this underdog would never reach.
Sunday, that ceiling was smashed with the watermelon Chastain slammed down from Victory Lane.
Circuit of the Americas was the site of his first Cup victory, fighting hard to deliver Trackhouse Racing Team its first win as an organization with a pinball-style move to punt A.J. Allmendinger out of the way. It was a back-and-forth, last-lap slugfest among Allmendinger, Alex Bowman and Chastain that saw each driver hold the lead at one point until Chastain's turn 19 contact set the stage for the No. 1 car to scoot away.
The finish to today's NASCAR race at COTA.— Always Race Day (@AlwaysRaceDay) March 27, 2022
Ross Chastain gets the last punch on AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman.
It's a final few turns at COTA in Austin that will be replayed, and hotly debated, among all its combatants for years.
"At the end of the day," said a frustrated Allmendinger. "You've got to look at yourself in the mirror. If you're OK with it, you're OK with it. Every person's different. So, it doesn't matter what I think."
He's right. No matter your take, Allmendinger wound up backwards in the runoff area while Chastain and Trackhouse were celebrating long into Sunday night.
"I didn't draw that up that way in my head," Chastain said. "But yeah, I did what I did. I stand by it."
"I struggle to find what's too much," said TRT owner Justin Marks when asked about the move. "Today was not different than how you see so many of these races end."
What is different is how Chastain, Marks and Trackhouse have climbed up the ladder the hard way. Chastain, a watermelon farmer, had only modest backing to start his NASCAR career and toiled over a half-dozen years in underfunded rides. When his first chance with Ganassi went sideways, he fell back to the Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR's equivalent of double-A baseball. Winning three races with an unheralded program, Chastain worked his way back up to Xfinity, then into Ganassi's good graces for a full-time Cup ride in 2021.
But halfway through that year, Ganassi sold his program to Marks and an upstart TRT team co-owned by Pitbull. Again, Chastain's future was up in the air through circumstances outside his control.
Luckily, Marks and Chastain had a long-standing relationship. The new owner not only wanted Chastain to continue on, he offered stability with a two-year contract, a first for a man who stitched his career together on financial duct tape.
"I'm a huge fan of people," Marks said that August, "That have had to work hard against adversity and against odds to try to get where they have gotten in their careers."
Six races into the partnership and that bet's already paying off. Chastain already has more top-5 finishes (four) than his entire season running for Ganassi last year. His aggressive style, while earning detractors, has TRT in playoff position earlier than heavyweight Joe Gibbs Racing and the new team it's often compared to, Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing. Could we be watching a dark horse title contender in the making?
"This sport is ready for challengers," Marks said Sunday. "It's ready for disruptors. It's ready for people to come in and challenge the status quo and how we do things, have some fun, look good, try to be fast, win races, have a good time doing it."
For Chastain, it's all just sinking in. A moment where he grabbed his spotter, Chad, to ride in the No. 1's passenger side to Victory Lane was a flashback to the family values that got him to this point.
"I wasn't going to leave him back there and make him fight his way into the track," Chastain said. "Get in. We're going. We won because he is my brother and I love him."
The only one missing to join in the fun? Pitbull.
"He said he was smashing a watermelon over his head and drinking champagne," Marks said. "I'll join him as soon as I can."
Green: NASCAR's Youth Movement. COTA marked the 12th straight Cup victory by a driver under the age of 30. Four of them have been first-time winners: Bubba Wallace (Talladega), Austin Cindric (Daytona), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix) and now Chastain. A changing of the guard? It's here.
Yellow: Tyler Reddick. Once again, Reddick contended to win his first Cup race until his bid for the win was squandered after contact with Chastain on the final restart. A fifth-place finish was the consolation prize, his third "almost" this year after Auto Club and Phoenix. But almost doesn't cut it in a season you might need to win to make the playoffs.
Red: Joe Gibbs Racing. No wins through six races? Unthinkable for an organization that sent two of its four teams to last year's Championship 4. Suddenly, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. look old while Christopher Bell has suffered from a variety of bad luck and mechanical problems.
Speeding Ticket: Full-Course Cautions. COTA is one of the longest road courses on the NASCAR circuit; a full lap under green takes well over two minutes. Nine caution flags for 13 laps (almost 20 percent of the race distance) is way too many when there wasn't a serious accident the entire day.
Open-wheel series like Formula One have local yellows where cars must slow down in a designated area of the track. That would have come in handy Sunday, speeding up the race as several cautions were thrown to tow a car that had lost power and pulled to the side of the track.
Sunday wasn't the only race where Alex Bowman came close and whiffed. Over in the Truck Series, a dive-bomb move sent him and Stewart Friesen into a dominant Kyle Busch, keeping all three drivers from winning the race.
Bowman put some of the blame on Friesen, walking over after the race to chat with Busch before describing it as a racing incident.
Bummer way to end a solid day. 52 just turned left when I was inside of him and put us at an angle where neither one of us way going to make the corner. Hate it happened but on to tomorrow ✌🏼— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) March 26, 2022
"Felt like we deserved that one," Busch said. "But doesn't matter if you deserve it or not. It's all a matter of whether or not you get it."
When pressed as to whether there's bad blood with Bowman, Busch deferred before saying, "It's the Truck Series." We'll see.