DARLINGTON, SC — Rick Hendrick says he sees Ross Chastain’s enormous talent. The veteran team owner also sees Chastain’s sometimes reckless style that leaves damaged cars and angry competitors in his wake.
Chastain’s late crash on a restart knocked out Kyle Larson and star driver Hendrick as they raced for the lead at Darlington on Sunday. An earlier tangle with Chastain ended the chances of another NASCAR champion, poleman Martin Truex Jr., who had led 145 of the first 151 laps of the Goodyear 400.
The wreck with Larson helped fellow Hendrick rider William Byron to the lead and hold off Kevin Harvick for his third win this season.
But it was Chastain’s actions that once again stole the show at NASCAR. Hendrick said he thought the Trackhouse Racing driver crossed a line.
“You just don’t run people into the fence,” Hendrick said. “He’s going to make a lot of enemies and it’s hard to win a championship when you have a lot of returns.”
These refunds accumulate.
Chastain was pitted against Noah Gragson in the pits after the AdventHealth 400 event in Kansas two races back. This is where Hendrick’s driver, Chase Elliott, was filmed walking beside Gragson saying, “Somebody’s got to do it.” Chastain hit Gragson before NASCAR security broke things off.
Denny Hamlin has been fined and given points for admitting he intentionally didn’t give in during Chastain’s run for a better finish in Phoenix two months ago.
“No, it wasn’t a mistake,” Hamlin said on his podcast a few days later. “I let go of the wheel and said, ‘He’s coming with me. /”
At Darlington, points leader Chastain had a fast and competitive car – he led 93 of 295 laps – and raced hard to get in front. He was leading at the end of the second leg with Truex closing in. Chastain bounced off the wall, cut Truex and sent him sliding.
“There was a lot of room there and he just bounced off the wall and hit me,” said Truex, the 2017 series champion who finished 31st.
After Chastain and Larson crashed, Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels angrily said on the radio that Chastain had pulled his driver out of three potential wins at Talladega and Dover ahead of Darlington.
“He’s got all the talent,” Hendrick said of Chastain. “He just doesn’t know when to run.”
Chastain acknowledged his intention to lock Larson up against the wall in Sunday’s late restart so Chastain can push past and potentially earn his first NASCAR win since the spring of 2022 at Talladega — a drought that now stands at 39 races.
“We are all going to run and I am fully committed to [turn] one and I wanted to squeeze it, I didn’t want to roll over on his nose for sure,” he said outside the track’s medical center. “That’s not how I wanted to talk to you all here.”
Chastain finished 20th. Larson finished 29th.
Chastain, 30, in his second full Cup Series season with Trackhouse, said the day before the race he was comfortable making competitors uncomfortable on the track. Chastain said he and Gragson spoke early last week about their history and put it aside.
He gradually accepts that his style will not please some people.
“It’s something I grow into off the track,” Chastain said. “Being myself in the best thing I can do and if people like it, they do it.”
Kyle Busch said he’s spoken with Chastain before about not making it every week, advice seemingly ignored.
“I don’t know the guy,” Busch said. “I don’t need to know the guy.”
Hendrick said he doesn’t believe the bad feelings will be mitigated by NASCAR, the manufacturers or others off the track. He said the pilots are the ones who can watch the sport the best.
“Having multiple incidents,” said Hendrick Motorsports Vice President Jeff Gordon, “is a long list that Ross is now on.”