By Cole Cusumano
It’s been nearly 700 days since watermelon shrapnel last decorated victory lane after a celebration from Ross Chastain. Touted as one of the most electric personalities both on and off the track, opportunities have been plentiful for the fresh-faced driver at Chip Ganassi Racing, but 2021 has proven to be his biggest challenge yet.
After starting the season on a high note placing seventh in the Daytona 500, Chastain only recorded one top-15 through the beginning seven-race stretch and slipped to 26th in the standings. As the NASCAR Cup Series nears the halfway point, it’s safe to say the “melon man” is getting things turned in the right direction.
Over the past six weeks, Chastain scored five top-15s, including two top-10s in the last three. As a result, the 28-year-old finds himself in the mix for a playoff spot only 48 points below the cutoff with 10 races remaining in the regular season.
What exactly sparked this rebound? A new mindset? Team preparation? In short, not compromising who he is.
“We’ve stayed on our path and I think that’s the biggest thing,” Chastain told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “We didn’t change, we didn’t differ, we didn’t get down. I live with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and the chip has shifted from wanting to beat people to just wanting to compete in the Cup Series.”
Surely, a sense of gratitude over competitive fire played a factor in sparking a turnaround, but it’s also not a stretch to say there was a bit of an acclimation process. Marred by high expectations, given his grit and success in NASCAR’s developmental series, Chastain is getting a taste of what it’s like to race with the best of the best on a full-time basis.
For Chastain, what it boiled down to was an understanding of patience and not forcing unnecessary pressure on himself and the team.
“I can’t change my effort and I think that’s the biggest reason it’s coming around,” Chastain said. “I couldn’t try any harder. I want to race with guys I’ve looked up to my whole life — my heroes. [Racing] is hard. It’s really hard and I’m not shy to say it took me a little bit to figure it out.”
While the results may have been lacking to start the season, the reality is Chastain is somewhat exceeding expectations. His three top-10s and 26 laps led are already more than Matt Kenseth, who did a bulk of the driving in the No 42 last year, achieved.