After His Season Finale Race Win, Is Ross Chastain a Top Title Contender for 2024?
The 2023 NASCAR Cup season has officially wrapped up with a neat little bow at the Phoenix Raceway. Ryan Blaney fended off attacks to eventually clinch the championship, ahead of Kyle Larson, William Byron and Christopher Bell. The last of them fell out of contention in the middle of the race. Then the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates did their utmost to catch Blaney, but to no avail. However, while all that was going on, it is easy to forget about the race winner, Ross Chastain.
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The #1 driver had already been eliminated from championship contention, so was not an outright threat. However, no one told the Trackhouse Racing driver that, so he decided to become a thorn in the championship contenders’ sides. After starting in 8th place, he kept himself in the lead group for a long time and soon took over the lead. Chastain managed to sustain it for an astounding 157 laps, which was a little more than half of the 312-lap race.
Ross Chastain did not have an easy path to his victory
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Although he led so many laps, he didn’t do it all at once. In fact, he took the lead for good, with 30 laps left and held off a charging Blaney. Naturally, Ryan Blaney knew that he would win the title, as long as he was ahead of his rivals. However, he would have wanted to seal his maiden Cup Series title with a win, and how poetic would that be? In the end, though, Chastain outlasted the charge and became the first non-championship driver to win the season finale ever since the elimination-style format came into play.
Speaking after the race, Chastain told the media, “We did something else that’s never been done before. For everyone on this team, this vision for Trackhouse and what this was, were goals like this. They were lofty. That last caution we were really tight. It saved us. Phil Surgen (crew chief) and this group at Trackhouse, all of our GM support staff, sim staff, everybody came up with a way to make this thing turn, and we drove off into the sunset.”
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To be honest, Chastain really needed this race win, for his own confidence. This was because he only won one race this season at the Nashville Superspeedway, which secured his Playoff berth. Unfortunately, he did not win a single race since then, and that meant that he was soon relegated from championship contention. At least he lasted long enough to reach the Round of 12 and finish the season in 9th place.
This was a far cry from last season, one of his best
The Ross Chastain of 2022 and the Ross Chastain of 2023 were two different beasts. Last year, the Trackhouse Racing star always came out guns blazing and took no prisoners. After all, he did come up with the infamous ‘Hail Melon’ at the Martinsville Speedway that saw him sneak into the Championship 4. He also had no qualms about getting aggressive with his rivals, even if it meant earning their wrath. This was evident from his feuds with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott, among many others.
However, it was that aggression that led him to finish 2nd in the championship behind eventual winner Joey Logano. Sadly, that same aggression appears to have been tempered, and a different Ross Chastain competed in 2023. In fact, it was a difficult campaign for Trackhouse Racing as a whole. Last year, both drivers snatched at least one victory during the regular season. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for 2023, as only Chastain managed to reach Victory Lane.
Trackhouse Racing team owner Just Marks said, “The series has gotten tougher. These teams are bigger than us, have a lot of resources to figure out these cars. Now, everybody is understanding the cars more and more, what it takes to make them go fast, the drivers are understanding how to drive them. The level of competition has gotten much more difficult this year. Look, I mean, we won two races. I think it’s a wonderful success. I think the playoffs are just very, very difficult, one race can make a difference. Ross had some great races in the playoffs. The No. 1 team put up a heck of a fight, but it’s so difficult to get to Phoenix. I think this is a very successful season, another season that rewarded all the hard work in the company with multiple wins and a lot of happy people.”
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So does the win really make Ross Chastain a title favorite in 2024?
Frankly, it is difficult to say whether Chastain can be a championship contender. However, the good news is that the final win of the season could be a confidence booster and he could carry forward the momentum to 2024. Naturally, he will be on a mission to continue his good form and rack up a few more wins. It would be a welcome change of pace for Chastain fans, who would have definitely missed his aggression on the track.
Admittedly, the team should have figured that after their breakout season last year, things would be tougher this year. After all, their rivals would have found better ways to extract more performance from the Next Gen cars. As for Chastain himself, there were signs of his 2022 avatar, as he made a nuisance of himself against Blaney at Phoenix. Late in the race, there was contact between the race leader and the champion-elect.
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Blaney justified his actions, declaring that Chastain was trying to back him up into his rivals. He had a point because there was a very real threat of Kyle Larson and William Byron overtaking him and stealing the title. So, the #12 Team Penske driver bumped him and then went three-wide with Martin Truex Jr caught in the middle. Since the #1 Trackhouse Racing star blocked him on multiple occasions, Ryan Blaney felt it was fair to bump him. In the end, though, Ross Chastain went on to win the race and become the first non-championship 4 driver to win the final race, since the current Playoff format was introduced in 2014.