By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CHICAGO – Ross Chastain and his Trackhouse Racing team might have partied hard after winning last weekend in Nashville, but it’s back to business heading into the unknown of a first-ever street course race this weekend in Chicago.
With the momentum of his first win of the season and his first victory in more than a year, the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet noted that his team is not changing tactics mid-season and will be keeping their foot on the gas as the summer stretch rolls on.
“Nothing changes,” Chastain said. “We go as hard as we can, as fast as we can and try to put together the best weeks because we are competitors. And that is what we do.”
For a watermelon farmer from South Florida, rolling into downtown Chicago for Sunday’s historic running of the Grant Park 220 on the streets of the Windy City, the grandeur of it all might be a little bit of a culture shock, but Chastain is ready to take it all in.
“It’s a little different than Nashville, that’s for sure,” Chastain said. “Being out at the racetrack, it’s wild. I think we are all kind of experiencing it and whether you grew up in a city like this or not, it’s different when we are coming here and the thought of racing a NASCAR race.
“For me, it’s a bit different than Alva, Florida, and I am embracing it. It’s been an incredible feeling just knowing this is where we are going to work this weekend. When I strap in on Sunday, it’s right here, in the buildings. It’s going to be different and I am proud to be one of the drivers to be a part of this history-making moment.”
Despite the unknowns that racing on a street course for the first time brings, Chastain has had success on road courses in the past that he is hoping to put to good use on the 12-turn, 2.2-mile course. Although, he and the rest of the field will likely have to dial back the aggression a bit as they get a feel for the unforgiving nature of street course racing.
“For me, it’s still about naturally driving the car and attacking the track. But there is just no runoff,” Chastain explained. “In practice on these road courses is that I can overstep, spin out, and it’s okay in practice. Get the clutch pushed in, don’t let the engine turnover backwards, don’t lock a tire up and drag the car coming back in the pits, and don’t hit a tire barrier. It’s usually far enough away that there is room enough to stop and slide and learn the limit.
“Here that is not the case. There is no runoff and no room for error. In talking with drivers that have run street races before with these tight walls, that is the biggest difference. Virtually you can go and prepare, and still attack and crash on our simulators, but when you get in a car, it’s going to all close in. And that is what they all keep saying.
“I have just taken the approach that I know it’s going to feel terrible as far as wall proximity and knowing that I know the penalty in practice, qualifying, and the race and it’s really big. The moment that I break traction, I am not going to wonder if I am going to hit the wall for very long, because the wall is right there. So, that has been the biggest thing mentally is trying to balance aggression for lap time and penalty of overstepping that aggression and hitting the wall. That has really been my focus all week.”
With only 50 minutes of practice to get his car dialed in before qualifying, soaking up as much knowledge as possible will be key to shrinking the learning curve that faces all of the drivers this weekend.
Luckily for Chastain, his team owner Justin Marks will be racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday with Kaulig Racing and he will be able to observe what Marks is doing on track and how things play out during his race to learn more for Sunday.
“He is a highly renowned road course racer and the guy that I went to for advice,” Chastain said. “Never knowing that he was going to own a dang Cup team and I was going to drive for him, and we were going to win three races together.
“So, yeah, right when he gets on track, I will be right there at his window net when he gets out to debrief with him and Alex Yontz, his crew chief, and the Kaulig bunch. It’s a group that I have worked with before and I know that group well. I talked to him a little bit about the dynamics over there and helped him get up to speed with them.”