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Arrow pointing up for Ross Chastain as Pocono doubleheader looms

Ross Chastain’s big opportunity wasn’t working out as he’d hoped.

Over the off-season, he’d earned his first full-time Cup ride with a truly competitive team at Chip Ganassi Racing. But after a middling 23rd-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, his confidence was shaken.

“I had a lot of phone calls and a lot of team calls talking through the (car) set-up and talking through what I needed and how I could be better and how the car could be better.” Chastain said in a media call this week. “That was a tough week.”

It was part of what Chastain called, later on in April, a “humbling” start to the season.

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But as the series heads to Pocono Raceway this weekend for a Cup doubleheader (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET and Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET - NBCSN), the outlook has changed for him and his No. 42 team.

Last week at Nashville, Chastain heeded - and questioned - a call from crew chief Phil Surgen to pit for tires under caution with around 70 laps to go. But with fresh tires and a long green-flag run to close the race, Chastain moved from 17th at the restart to finish a career-best second.

It was Chastain’s third top-10 run in the last four races. He also finished fourth and seventh on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma Raceway, respectively.

From Chastain’s perspective, there wasn’t a single moment that sparked this burst of performance.

It was just a matter of building up, including with the relationship between himself, Surgen and spotter Brandon McReynolds. As Chastain noted, all three are in their first full Cup seasons in their respective roles.

“I know a lot of people question that and we’ve had a lot of truly open conversations before the season on what to expect,” Chastain said. “And we were short of our expectations to start the year, but we didn’t change. And the results are now getting there, and we’ve put together some good weeks.

“Although I’ve made a lot of mistakes, we’ve had mistakes made on the team in these races where we haven’t been up there the whole race like at least this last month together to finish the race, and that’s what it’s all about.”

The run has pushed Chastain into the playoff picture. With nine regular season races to go, he’s closed to within 50 points of Chris Buescher for the 16th and final playoff spot.

Momentum is on Chastain’s side going into Pocono, where he’s won in the Camping World Truck Series (2019). Last year, he finished second there in the Xfinity Series race for Kaulig Racing.

He’s also glad to finally have a strong starting position via the qualifying matrix formula. He’ll start a season-high sixth for Saturday’s first race.

“We’ve kind of been on the wrong end of the wheel every week on starting positions,” he said. “The math was always against us. I’m not good at math in general, but I knew we were always in the 20’s.

“So, to be in the top 10 firing off here is right next to my teammate, Kurt Busch (starts eighth Saturday) ... That’s going to be a big help. And then hopefully, we’re in not as good of a starting position on Sunday, like 20th, is kind of my goal.”

That would mean Chastain earned his first Cup victory in the opener. The starting lineup for Sunday’s second race has Saturday’s top 20 finishers inverted.