Ross Chastain learning to handle role as villain as NASCAR heads to Darlington
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Ross Chastain thinks things went too far last week in punching Noah Gragson in the pits at Kansas.
However, the NASCAR points leader says he feels more comfortable in his growing role as the Cup series' reigning bad boy.
Gragson confronted Chastain after a late-race incident and took a punch from Chastain before personnel broke it up.
"I feel security stepped in about 10 seconds too quick,” Kyle Busch said Saturday.
Expect blood pressure to rise this weekend at Darlington Raceway, where the Goodyear 400 takes place Sunday. The track “Too Tough To Tame” has traditionally gotten drivers sideways both during and after the checkered flag waves.
Chastain would prefer to talk out issues with rival drivers, but he stood by his actions at Kansas.
“I'm not saying that every time in a little bit different situation (I'm) going to react like that," he said. “I want to talk to guys and have conversations, but last week was too far.”
Chastain will start fifth on Sunday. Martin Truex Jr., who won this event in 2021, won the pole with Bubba Wallace alongside in second. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was third ahead of William Byron. Daniel Suarez starts sixth, ahead of Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Tyler Reddick and Brad Keselowski.
Chastain cleared the air with Gragson on Monday and believes the scuffle is finished. Yet, Chastain remains the focal point for driver and fan anger over his aggressive style.
Denny Hamlin was fined money and points after acknowledging he intentionally hit Chastain late in the Phoenix race two months ago.
There have been disagreements with Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and even calmer, less confrontational racers like Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola.
Elliott, caught on camera, passed Gragson in the pits at Kansas and told him, “Somebody's got to do it,” referring to some Chastain payback.
Busch has advised Chastain in the past, telling him, “Don't be the headline every week.”
Those words didn't take hold, according to Busch: “He hasn't learned, he hasn't listened to anybody.”
“I don't know the guy,” Busch continued. “I don't need to know the guy.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett sees Chastain as a convenient scapegoat in the garage these days.
“I've seen nothing from Ross that he is a dirty race driver whatsoever,” said Jarrett, who'll be honored by Chastain's car with a throwback, brown-and-white UPS paint scheme.
Chastain “getting blamed for everything that goes on on the damn racetrack is getting old, in my opinion,” Jarrett said. “Guys on the opposite side of the track are saying it's Ross' fault.”
Chastain hasn't let his rising profile as NASCAR's chief villain throw him off course. He's driving all three Darlington events this weekend and said the reaction at his truck race introduction Friday night was about “70-30” in his favor.
“On the track, I am comfortable making these guys uncomfortable and that's not always going to come across well,” Chastain said.
Out of the car, “I'm learning to be comfortable in this role,” he said. “I'm not the guy who grew up wanting to be on camera.”
Chastain thought he'd follow in the family business as a Florida watermelon farmer and live a life far away from the NASCAR spotlight.
“It's something I'm growing into off the track,” he said. “Being myself in the best thing I can do and if people like it, they do."
Darlington's annual throwback weekend will celebrate NASCAR's 75th anniversary and its 75 all-time drivers, 33 who plan to be at the track. It's a gathering, track president Kerry Tharp said, that honors the sport's rich history. “I don't know that we'll ever see that again,” Tharp said. “At least not in my lifetime.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Kyle Larson, the 2021 series champ who's had five top-three finishes without winning at Darlington, is the 5-1 favorite take Sunday's race, according to Fanduel Sportsbook.
Denny Hamlin, a four-time Darlington winner, is next at 6-1, followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate in Martin Truex Jr. at 7-1. William Byron and Tyler Reddick were tied at 8.5-1 in front of Kyle Busch (10-1), points leader Ross Chastain (11-1) and Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell (12-to-1).
Logano won this race last May.
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