Insight Mark Walker November 1, 2022 (Comments off) (519)

The Move that Shook the World

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past 24 hours, by now you would have seen Ross Chastain’s rather remarkable last-lap move in the penultimate round of the NASCAR Cup Series from Martinsville Speedway, below.

Coming into the final two corners of the 500-lap race, instead of braking and down-changing through the gears to make the corner, he aimed at the outside fence, shifted up to fifth gear, and kept his foot hard on the throttle.

Remarkably, the move stuck, the car kept its momentum and didn’t wad up into a ball, despite having to cross the treacherous turn four cross-over gate.

He made it to the finish line, in the process passing five cars in a matter of a few hundred metres.

The video game move worked.

If it looked quick, that’s because it was quick.

Chastain’s last lap time was a 18.845sec, Kyle Larson was the next best with a 20.020sec, while Larson earlier in the weekend qualified on the pole with a time of 19.709sec.

The track record used to be an 18.954sec.

The data available from his car shows that he was carrying 50mph (80km/h) more car speed than a standard lap.

Post-race, Chastain recalled being beaten by this move when he was a kid playing a video game – it was a fight or flight instinct that kicked in.

For the ridiculousness of the action, there were several factors external to the fleeting moments at Martinsville that add to the legend of ‘Rim-riding Ross’.


The Situation

NASCAR is unique within the motorsport world by having a playoff system.

With a 36-event schedule, there were years when the title was decided far in advance of the season finale.

In Supercars terms on a similar schedule, it would be like Shane van Gisbergen wrapping up the title with 4.5 events to go.

Nobody wants to see that, especially in the made-for-entertainment world of NASCAR racing.

So the governing body instigated The Chase, which has morphed into the modern-day Playoffs.

Put simply, every portion of every stage of the regular season now plays a part in determining the final championship outcome.

The Playoffs feature three rounds where the field of 16 is whittled down to the final four, with the best finishing driver from that quartet at the Phoenix finale crowned the ultimate champion.

The ten-week Playoffs sees elimination rounds at the conclusion of every three-week block, with the bottom four taken out of title calculations.

All of the regular season races are broken down into segments, each with championship points on the line, but also Playoff points – win a stage, and you have a bonus point added to your tally throughout the entire Playoff run.

Win a race and you automatically qualify for the Playoffs, plus earn five bonus Playoff points.

It might be slightly convoluted, but in essence, it places an emphasis on winning, and also track position right through every single portion of every race.

Martinsville is the 35th points event of the year, and the last chance to make it into the final four at Phoenix.

Joey Logano was already a lock thanks to his win at Las Vegas, Chase Elliot also punched his ticket thanks to a handy points cushion earned largely through his Playoff points tally, while Christopher Bell’s victory was somewhat of an underdog upset – he was well outside on points, but like the recent Charlotte oval – he won in the final cut off race to progress.

The fourth transfer spot ebbed and flowed all race long.

Ryan Blaney and Chase Briscoe were in the conversation at times, ditto Chastain, but at the drop of the white flag with 800m remaining, Denny Hamlin held a two-point advantage, with one point on offer via each car passed on track.

With Chastain holding the tiebreak thanks to his pair of second placings in the two most recent races, a tie would have been sufficient for him to advance.

Instead, he went absolutely full send, and ultimately made home with a “comfortable” cushion.


The Team

Nobody in their right mind would have put Trackhouse Racing in the final four in what is effectively their first year in operation.

After previously running as a single-car satellite entry out of Richard Childress Racing in 2021 with driver Daniel Suarez, team owner and former sportscar and NASCAR driver Justin Marks talked Chip Ganassi into selling his NASCAR Cup operation.

It was a good team, but not necessarily a great team – what it did come with was top-tier support from Chevrolet, with all of the information flow that comes with that partnership.

With rapper Pitbull in the ownership makeup of the squad, it planned to do things differently and shake up the establishment, with initiatives such as Project 91 seeing Kimi Raikkonen take in the Watkins Glen event in essentially a wildcard entry.

Shane van Gisbergen has been a rumoured starter for that venture in 2023.

Coming into the finale, both Chastain and Suarez have been breakthrough winners throughout 2022, with the duo at times being the clear class of the field at the top of the points standings.

If you don’t mind an underdog, Trackhouse is worthy of your support.


The Driver

Ross Chastain has been a blue-collar journeyman in the NASCAR ranks.

After four wins in the Truck Series and two wins in the Xfinity Series, he was a solid performer, deserving of a top-level drive, even if he hasn’t been an outright superstar.

There were tough breaks along the way.

For the 2019 season, Chip Ganassi had signed Chastain on as his driver in the Xfinity Series with sponsor DC Solar on the flanks of his Chevy.

However, when DC Solar was raided by the FBI in December 2018, things unravelled, fast.

As it transpires, the company was a Ponzi scheme, with its founder sent to the big house for 30 years.

His luck however would turn by the end of 2020, when it was announced that he would replace Matt Kenseth aboard Ganassi’s number 42 Cup Car, with Trackhouse ultimately taking on his services with the reborn squad for the current season.


2022

The number 1 Chevy was quick out of the gates with the new NextGen ruleset – after a tough opening pair of races, Chastain finished third at Las Vegas, second at Phoenix, and second at Atlanta.

The sixth points event of the season was a whole different kettle of fish – the wide expanses of the Road Course at the Circuit of the Americas.

The abridged version: he had AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman off at the penultimate corner, paving the way to his breakthrough race victory, with the effort repeated a month later in the very same chassis at the Talladega Superspeedway.

A seventh-generation watermelon farmer, Chastain has made smashing the fruit his victory lane signature move – quite the point of difference.

However, the zero stuffs attitude from the COTA win quickly morphed into the “Don’t give a f*** tour”, when on-track clashes spilled over into the midweek headlines.

Multiple run-ins with Denny Hamlin, and others like Chase Elliot, Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Christopher Bell, raised the ire of the competitor base.

Even at Martinsville yesterday, he tangled with Brad Keselowski, and had another on-track confrontation with Hamlin.

Retribution has been promised, but to date, none has been forthcoming.


The Aftermath

Clearly, the move and the background to it, melted the internet.

Driver reaction has been mixed, from awesome to brilliant and cool, through to those condemning it – the danger of it, and the can of worms it opens.

Whether the negative feedback would be different if it were anyone else is an interesting thought bubble.

Chastain’s act didn’t involve anyone else, but with his hands off the wheel, he didn’t exactly have control, either.

It’s not unprecedented – Sheldon Creed tried a similar move only a month ago in the Xfinity race at Darlington, above, but it failed.

Could NASCAR effectively police such actions? That would be a difficult task.

This weekend at Phoenix, it’s winner takes all from Chastain, Elliot, Bell and Logano.

The video game move won’t work everywhere, but it could definitely be a factor in Phoenix, with the sweeping final curve leading to the finish line.

What this means is that the champion won’t be decided until the final chequered flag.

In weeks like this, you wouldn’t mind being the host broadcaster NBC…

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