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Friday 5: How a pit road conversation helped Ross Chastain see things differently

Ross Chastain wasn’t sure what to expect when Kevin Harvick approached him on pit road after the June 27 Pocono Cup race.

There’s a history between the two drivers. Harvick called Chastain a “really inexperienced guy in a really fast car” after their incident thee years ago in the Xfinity race at Darlington.

Chastain is known as an aggressive driver. It helped him climb from low-budget Xfinity rides to a full-time Cup ride this past season with Chip Ganassi Racing. That aggression also has gotten Chastain in trouble on the track. Just as it did that day at Pocono.

Harvick saw it all. He offered Chastain some advice after the race.

“Hey man, you realize if you just back off one notch, you’re going to finish fifth or sixth today,” Harvick told Chastain.

Instead, Chastain placed 26th because of an aggressive move that backfired.

Chastain has tried to rein his aggression since. Harvick has noticed.

“I think Ross Chastain is a great example of learning how to race the proper way,” Harvick said during the playoffs. “He’s just done it faster than most. … I think his progression has been fun to watch just because that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”

Looking back on that day at Pocono, though, reminds Chastain of the mistake he made in that race and how far he’s come.

Chastain was racing Christopher Bell for second place with about 40 laps left when trouble occurred.

“I had position on Christopher Bell, almost cleared him off of (Turn) 2 and he comes back,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “Then down into (Turn) 3, I should have just fell in line. I would have been in third place, and I’d been fine.

“Instead, I drive into (Turn) 3 wide open, knowing that I can’t make it, but I’m going to clear him and catch it and air block it. But he did the same thing, so I was never going to make it. Kevin (running behind them) saw that.

“I hit Christopher into the wall. I cut a tire. He cuts a tire. Then you watch back on SMT on our data, you can see I drove in 100 feet deeper than I had all day with a car next to me trying to take the spot. No. That’s the kind of things I’m talking about (about being overly aggressive).”

So, how did Chastain change?

He got help from Josh Wise, a former driver who works with several competitors, including Chastain, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick. Wise taught Chastain to remove one word from his vocabulary.

That word?

Chastain, standing in his team’s hauler, turned to open a drawer and pulled out a pen. He grabbed a paper towel and wrote “take” on it. He wouldn’t say the word.

“You’re not to use that word anymore, and you’re not going to do it on the track,” Chastain said Wise told him.

While there are still times to be aggressive, there are also times to be smart. Chastain looks at his third-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington as an example of racing smart.

“I had several restarts on old tires at Darlington with high horsepower and low downforce, next to two guys running for the championship and playoff guys all around me,” Chastain said. “I didn’t hook anybody, and I didn’t run into anybody until I got into Kyle (Busch) late. I did more damage to my car than his trying to pull out and pass him.

“That was where I was very aware of what they were doing, and I had a few instances where I would have crashed in the spring Darlington race if I had been in that position. I would have crashed Denny (Hamlin) one time into (Turn) 1. I would have crashed Kyle (Busch) one time. I definitely would have. The progression there at Darlington was like ‘OK, we can do this.’”

Chastain’s lesson came in a season where he ran only 41 total NASCAR races — the fewest number of national series races he’s run since his Cup debut in 2017.

Chastain ran 77 Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races in 2019. Only Kyle Busch has run more national series races in a season than Chastain since 2006.

Chastain said he missed not having practice at most events this season over running in more Xfinity and Truck races.

“Man, I would feel so much more prepared if I had practice … even a 20-minute session, give me something,” Chastain said.

Practice and qualifying are expected to return for all Cup events next season.

That extra track time next year will be helpful as he moves to Trackhouse Racing, looking to improve upon his 20th-place finish in the points this season.

2. Staying in place

For the first time since 2017, Daniel Suarez will go into the offseason not worried about where he’ll race.

This past season marked the fourth consecutive year he had been with a different Cup team. He was with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019, joined Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020, and ran for Trackhouse Racing this year.

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 15: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 CommScope Chevrolet, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“I don’t think people really understand the difference that makes,” Suarez said of staying in one place vs. jumping around to teams. “Every single time you have to start from zero, beginning with people, mechanics, engineers, that communication.”

Suarez said he feels comfortable at Trackhouse Racing, which completed its first season in Cup last weekend at Phoenix. Suarez finished 25th in the points. He ended the season with four top-15 finishes in the last seven races.

“I feel what gets me more excited is how the team is growing with me, and I’ve been able to influence how I can make the team better for me,” Suarez said. “I’ve never had that before.

“Pretty much in the past, (it was) ‘This is what you got and good luck.’ That was it. If it was good, great. If it was not so good, then too bad. That was it. My voice wasn’t loud enough to make adjustments.

“I feel with Trackhouse, they listen to me. We are making a few adjustments here and there, and we’ve been growing together. I like that a lot. I feel the future of Trackhouse Racing is very bright.

The organization will expand to a two-car operation with the addition of Ross Chastain.

“I think he’s a very talented driver,” Suarez said. “I also think he’s hungry, and he’s willing to work hard, and l like that.”

3. Looking ahead

This season wasn’t going to be easy. Matt Tifft and BJ McLeod knew that as owners of Live Fast Motorsports, which made its Cup debut this season.

With one year before the Next Gen debuted, the team was careful with its money and how much it invested in the current car, knowing that the car would be obsolete after this season.

The result was the team placed 32nd in the owners standings. Tifft and McLeod have higher goals with the Next Gen car and what it can do for smaller teams.

“I definitely am pleased with the fact that we met our goals, but we are very hungry to be better than we are right now,” McLeod told NBC Sports.

NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - SEPTEMBER 11: BJ McLeod, driver of the #78 Keen Parts Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond Raceway on September 11, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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They lasted longer than some might have thought. McLeod said they got their first call in March asking if they were interested in selling their charter.

“Matt and I, we didn’t buy this to make money, especially short term,” McLeod said. “We do hope to have it profitable and make a living doing this for the next two decades. We bought this because we want to groom ourselves into being the next Penske, RCR, Hendrick, Haas, Gibbs, whoever you want to say. That’s what we want to do.”

McLeod said there was “never a temptation” to sell the charter the team got for the 2021 season. He said the first offer was for “$10 million plus … and it kept going up from there.”

After getting through this season, what’s next for Live Fast Motorsports?

“For Matt and I both, it’s keep building our advertising partners and get our budget to where we can afford engine leases,” McLeod said. “We’re still going to own our own engines next year, and we don’t want to do that in ’23.”

4. Big bet

After Daniel Hemric won the Xfinity championship last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, he shared just how much of a bet he took on himself this season.

“I took a ride this year to not take a dime, to not get paid, to have to perform to be able to put food on the table,” he said of his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.

He later said: “I knew that was the only chance for me to rebuild my career.”

Hemric was the 2019 Cup Rookie of the Year, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in his ride at Richard Childress Racing. He ran 21 of the 33 Xfinity races in 2020 for JR Motorsports, sitting out the rest of the races. He moved to Gibbs for this season.

“This sport, you live in from the time you’re five years old, you reached the peak, now you’re on the decline,” Hemric said. “ That was an experience I never wanted to experience, hope nobody else ever has to experience.”

Hemric will look to defend his Xfinity title next year at Kaulig Racing.

“Any parent will tell you that when it’s you and your wife, it’s one thing, you think you’ll figure it out,” he said. “When you bring another person in this world, like our little girl Rhen, that’s a different perspective.

“To bet on yourself, the livelihood of your family, your daughter eating, putting food on the table, that changes it.Knowing the decisions I had to make last week to give our family the shot we did tonight, there’s no more motivation needed than that.”

5. Familiar scene

Cup champion Kyle Larson led 2,581 laps this season. That is more than what the next two drivers in laps led combined to lead this season.

Denny Hamlin led 1,502 laps. Chase Elliott led 952 laps. They combined to lead 2,454 laps.

Larson led 127 more laps than Hamlin and Elliott combined.

Larson’s total is the most laps led by a driver in a season since Jeff Gordon led 2,610 laps in his 1995 championship season.

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