By Cole Cusumano
When you hear “Watermelon Crawl” by Tracy Byrd during driver introductions at Bristol Motor Speedway, you’ll know exactly who’s taking center stage. Unfortunately for Ross Chastain, he’ll likely have to face a different tune in the Round of 16 elimination race.
The two-time winner for Trackhouse Racing this year took the NASCAR Cup Series by storm, finishing third in the regular-season standings and being a consistent frontrunner essentially from the get go. But not without controversy.
The Melon Man made a habit out of weekly on-track incidents – intentional or not – most notably with Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 has been far from shy in voicing his displeasure with how he’s been raced by Chastain, and there’s a growing sense of an impending retaliation as the sport heads to one of the shortest tracks on the circuit.
What would normally be a plush 26-point advantage over the cutoff entering the final race of the Round of 16 is now looking like a fight for survival for Chastain. To make matters worse, Hamlin opened up the postseason with back-to-back runner-ups and doesn’t have much to lose with a 47-point gap from elimination.
“Look, I mean, we were ready to hoist the American eagle trophy at Pocono (Raceway) and [Hamlin] took that from us,” Chastain told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “That hurt. I felt a lot of emotions … and I’m not saying that it wasn’t warranted.
“I’ve gotten into the 11 too many times under too many circumstances. I’ll continue to learn and evolve.”
It’s been tough sledding for Chastain since Pocono, where Hamlin smartly executed a non-contact pinch into the wall that ended his rival’s day prematurely. In the seven races that followed, the 29-year-old didn’t fare better than 18th with a 25th-place average in that time.
This may have put a dent in Chastain’s 2022 campaign, but according to Hamlin, the score is far from being settled. As a first-time playoff contender, how does one go about navigating a track with a storied reputation for payback spanning decades?
“For me, it’s just another race,” Chastain said. “I can not go take anything from Bristol; [it] will chew me up and spit me out real quick if I try. It’s just such an impressive thing that we’ve built and I think it will stand the test of time as one of the coolest racing venues in the world.
“I can’t wait to get there”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned through two playoff races, it’s that literally anything can happen. The reality is there is likely a world where one of the most competitive teams all year doesn’t make it past the first round due to poor on-track management.
As if an elimination race under the lights in Thunder Valley wasn’t going to be must-watch television as is, the history between Chastain and Hamlin all but ensures what’s sure to be a chaotic night. Have your popcorn and watermelon ready for Saturday, September 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET for the Bass Pro Shops Night Race from Bristol Motor Speedway.