How NASCAR driver Ross Chastain went from rule breaker to rule maker
A year ago, Ross Chastain rode into Austin, Texas without much buzz. He grew up an eighth-generation watermelon farmer chasing his NASCAR Cup Series dream.
Nothing's been quite the same for the 30-year-old from rural Florida after he surprisingly bulled his way to the 2022 EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix victory — his first in a Cup car — at Circuit of the Amercias.
The Watermelon Man went on to make the playoffs last year, finishing third in the Final Four championship race at Phoenix and second in season points. Yet he's become a lightning rod for his wild GameCube wall ride at Martinsville and numerous dust-ups with established stars like Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott.
Chastain, third in the points standings, makes no apologies for his aggressive style.
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"There's the good and the bad," Chastain told the American-Statesman. "The good is on restarts, I can make spots up by being bold. The bad is sometimes feelings are hurt in the process. I get my feelings hurt plenty. Guys take advantage of me on restarts just as I do to others. I think it's pass-or-be-passed, jump-or-be-jumped.
"I don't get loud and complain about it. I love the high level of racing we do. For me I think it's worth it."
Just last week at Atlanta, Chastain was ridden into the wall by Hamlin, a move most saw as payback for past transgressions. Hamlin, pushing 50 wins in his Cup Series career, pretty much acknowledged that on his podcast.
"It wasn't a mistake. No, it wasn't a mistake," Hamlin said of his hit on Chastain. "I was losing my grip with old tires and about to go backward. I knew I was screwed. So I let the wheel go, and I said, 'you're coming with me.' You've got to do something to get these guys' attention. Ross doesn't like it when I speak his name and when I have this microphone."
In last year's race at COTA, Chastain used his beatin'-and-bangin' style to brush aside A.J. Allmendinger and Alex Bowman in the final series of turns during an overtime shootout lap.
"When it comes to a Cup win, I can't let that go down without a fight," he said.
Chastain, whose fast-rising Trackhouse Racing team is co-owned by Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull, is stunned it came on a road course.
"I still can't believe it," the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro said. "I traditionally had not been the best on road courses. I went to Justin a lot for help, but I still trained like I don't know anything for turning right. It's not something I did growing up. Turning left is simple for me, turning right is completely unnatural. I've come a long way fast on most road courses."
The creativity Chastain showed on the short track at Martinsville last fall earned mainstream national attention. Needing to pass a bunch of cars on the last lap to qualify for the playoffs, he borrowed from his mental video-game library and rode his hotrod up against the wall at a track-record 140-mph speed, and blew by five cars to secure the last postseason spot. He was going 50 mph faster than anyone else.
The Hail Melon, as it was called, racked up more than 100 million views on social media. Then it was outlawed by NASCAR.
"I'm very proud I thought of the (GameCube) move and pulled it off," Chastain said. "I figured running wide open against the wall would be the best way, my only shot. It's a unique thing about our sport that we're able to drive cars to the limit and sometimes over the limit.
"NASCAR made the right call by banning it. We'd be doing it more now that guys know it's possible. Look, it was the longest wreck of my career, a five-second sustained wreck. It did not feel great. The reward was worth the risk. I'm not afraid to have a rule written about me, but I don't want to break the rules."
Just watermelons. His victory celebration includes smashing a watermelon from the top of his car. This Friday he will drop watermelons off COTA's famous 251-foot observation tower for a photo shoot. Does he eat them — or just smash them?
"Oh, yes, they are part of my normal diet," Chastain said. "And after a win, I find the biggest piece left on the ground, pick it up and take a big bite. I have eaten some grass, spit out a little piece of rock from the asphalt. Watermelon never tasted sweeter than after we win.
"Early on I promoted myself as The Watermelon Kid. Now it's taken on a life its own. We keep it in the hauler, and it only gets touched after we win. It's a really cool way I can pay it back to my family farm that helped get me where I am, an agriculture industry that helps feed the world."
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: NASCAR's Ross Chastain, 2022 COTA winner, is rule breaker and maker