Friday 5: Trackhouse duo completes long road to Cup playoffs

·11 min read

When the calendar turned three years ago to Jan. 1, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain found themselves in much different places.

Chastain wondered if his NASCAR career was over. Suarez hoped to revive his Cup career.

Now teammates at Trackhouse Racing, Chastain and Suarez both prepare for their first Cup playoff appearance. Chastain enters Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m ET on USA Network) ranked third in the points, while Suarez is 13th in the 16-driver field.

Three years ago, Chastain and Suarez could not have imagined the path that would lead them both to Trackhouse Racing and a chance to win a Cup championship.

After the 2018 season, Chastain looked forward to his first full season in the Xfinity Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. That changed on Dec. 18 when the FBI raided the home of DC Solar CEO Jeff Carpoff and the headquarters of DC Solar, which was to be Chastain’s sponsor. Carpoff was sentenced last November to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay $790.6 million in restitution for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.

Without a sponsor, Ganassi shut down its Xfinity program before the 2019 season. That left Chastain without a ride.

“From the night I found out the raid happened, which was a day and a half later, to Jan. 2, in my head I was done racing in NASCAR,” Chastain said.

“In my head, once that was gone, I just never thought I’d have an opportunity like that. I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run scuffed tires.”

That was his reference to running with another team at the back of the field that couldn’t or didn’t typically pay for a full allotment of new tires, forcing him to run on older tires more in a race. It’s easy to get buried in such rides and never find a ride with a top team.

“Ultimately, I decided to go back and run scuffed tires,” Chastain said.

He took any ride he could get in 2019, running 77 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races. Since 2006, only Kyle Busch had run more races in a season than Chastain did that year.

Chastain’s determination and performance led him back to Ganassi for the 2021 Cup season. He felt secure there until Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks bought Ganassi’s operation to make Trackhouse a two-car team for this season. Chastain’s anxiety faded when Marks told him he had a place with the team.

That paired Chastain with Suarez for this season. But Suarez’s journey had its roadblocks.

Suarez joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 when he was let go by Joe Gibbs Racing after two Cup seasons there. While Suarez finished what was then a career-best 17th in the points, it was not enough to stay at SHR. He was replaced by Cole Custer for the 2020 season.

Suarez was left to search for any opportunity. With options limited, he went to Gaunt Brothers Racing, an underfunded team. He didn’t score a top-15 finish that season and was at a crossroads in his career. Rarely do drivers at such teams return to among the elite organizations.

Suarez’s opportunity came when Marks pitched him a concept of what Trackhouse Racing could be. Suarez considered that offer, along with one from a team that had won. He was unsure about the team that had won and went with Marks.

“My father told me I was crazy,” Suarez said. “A few friends from Mexico told me that ‘I’m not sure you’re making the right call.’ Eight months later, they told me, ‘I’m glad you made that call.’

“Sometimes you just have to trust your gut a little bit. Justin looked at me in the eyes and said, “You have to trust me on this. We’re going to build something great, and I’m going to be able to give you the opportunity to build a team around,’ something that nobody else allowed me to do before the Cup Series. It makes a huge difference when you have a team for you.”

The result is that Chastain has won twice this year and Suarez has won once, putting both of Trackhouse’s cars in the playoffs. Suarez recently signed a contract extension to remain with Trackhouse through the 2023 season.

Challenges remain for both — Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch have each questioned if Chastain can win a championship with so many drivers upset by his driving this season, while Suarez has one top-10 finish in his last five starts — but Chastain and Suarez still have a chance for a championship.

“I’m just here to hang on for the ride,” Chastain said.

2. Short track connections

Chase Elliott said Wednesday’s sellout crowd of about 18,000 at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the CARS Tour race that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr., was an “amazing spectacle for short track racing.”

“I think the track needed that,” Elliott said. “I think the series needed that. I think our sport needed that, honestly, just from the sense of what could be.

“We’re all connected, one way or another, whether it’s short track racing or NASCAR on Sunday, it’s all connected in a way. I just think it was really positive and cool to see that when everybody comes together and wants to support something, they show out like that.”

North Wilkesboro, a 0.625-mile speedway, hosted Cup races from 1949-96. It had largely sat idle other than select events 2010-11 before hosting various races in August.

Earnhardt’s interest in the track helped on-going efforts to save the speedway.

“I thought for sure it was gone forever. And here we are,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports’ Mike Hembree before competing in Wednesday’s race (Earnhardt finished third).

It’s not just North Wilkesboro Speedway that could have a different future.

Elliott has been a vocal supporter of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. The 0.596-mile track hosted at least one Cup race a year from 1958-84. The Xfinity Series raced there in 1984, ’88, ’89 and from 1995-2000.

Speedway Motorsports, which owns North Wilkesboro Speedway, seeks a deal with the city of Nashville to operate Fairgrounds Speedway and bring NASCAR races to that track.

Elliott competed in an SRX race at Fairgrounds Speedway last year with his Hall of Fame father Bill and noted the electric atmosphere. He said Fairgrounds Speedway could be “one of the, if not the best stop, on our schedule.”

But Elliott knows more must be done to help tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Fairgrounds Speedway.

“It’s really important to talk about these things,” said Elliott, who goes into this year’s Cup playoffs as the No. 1 seed. “And if you care about something, then go out there and support it.

“And then for the fans, too, it’s more than just chiming in on Twitter and saying that you agree, it’s about going and supporting it. You saw that at Nashville with the SRX race when dad and I were up there racing, you saw that (Wednesday) night with Dale. I think that’s a really powerful statement for short track racing and for our sport.”

3. Feeling better

Denny Hamlin says he’s improving as he recovers from last week’s crash in Daytona that was triggered by a wet track.

“The best way I can describe it is like I got beat up at a bar and somebody was kicking me in the ribs while I was on the ground,” said Hamlin, who was scheduled to compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington but is skipping to heal for Sunday’s Southern 500. “That’s really all I can equate it to. The whole right side just felt smashed.

“It was one when I hit the wall for sure, that initial hit to the wall and then somebody came and hit me on the left side. That was another pretty heavy spike as well. I’m not really sure which one did the most damage.”

Drivers have noted this year that they are experiencing harder hits with the new car. Drivers have been more vocal about the impacts since Kurt Busch suffered concussion-like symptoms in late July.

In years past, teams could make adjustments with particular parts and pieces but with those items coming from vendors, who do the drivers talk to about safety concerns?

“It’s all in the hands of NASCAR,” Hamlin said. “It’s up to them to make sure that all of the drivers are safe and whatever the product they hand us.

“We didn’t design the Next Gen car. We left it in their hands to design it and they farmed it out to these companies to build. Certainly in the old days, we would do things in our own race shop to make them a little better based off the feedback we have, but we just have to wait and see what they hand us.”

Asked if he felt this car is as safe as it could be, Hamlin said: “I’m not really sure. … Certainly it could be better, but anytime you build something that’s more rigid and built to last longer, the softest part, which is your body, is going to take the brunt of it. Right now, that’s where we’re getting beat up.”

4. Kurt Busch update

Kurt Busch will miss his seventh consecutive race this weekend at Darlington, as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a July 23 crash at Pocono Raceway.

23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin provided an update Thursday.

“He’s getting better and he’s kind of plateaued, which is something he wouldn’t think would happen,” Hamlin said. “He’s gotten to about 80 percent and it’s kind of stayed there. I think the rest is just going to take quite a bit of time.”

There is no timetable for Busch’s return. Ty Gibbs continues to replace Busch.

But with Busch having won at Kansas in May, the No. 45 car is competing for the owner’s championship in the playoffs. 23XI Racing announced this week that Bubba Wallace would move from the No. 23 to the No. 45 car for the playoffs to help that car move as high as possible in the owner points standings. Gibbs goes from the No. 45 to the No. 23 car.

“It’s a lot of heavy lifting to ask Ty at 19 years old to keep it off the fence for 500 miles at Darlington,” Hamlin said of the drivers switching car numbers. “It’s probably going to be a tough ask so we wanted to put our best and most experienced guy out there to give us a chance to continue to move on and up in the standings.”

5. Youngest playoff field

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, who makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Darlington, turns 24 Friday.

This year’s 16-driver playoff field is the youngest in the 19 seasons of NASCAR’s playoff system, which started in 2004 with the Chase.

The average age of this year’s field is 31 years, 0 months, 16 days. Nine of the 16 playoff drivers are in their 20s. They are Cindric (24), William Byron (24), Tyler Reddick (26), Chase Elliott (26), Christopher Bell (27), Chase Briscoe (27), Ryan Blaney (28), Alex Bowman (29) and Ross Chastain (29).

Cindric is the youngest driver in the playoff field. His birthday typically is a low-key event.

“It’s just another day in the year and another tick on the calendar,” said Cindric, who enters the playoffs ranked 14th. “I guess I’m not that excitable when it comes to birthdays.”

But he does remember when he turned 10. His family had a Survivor-themed birthday party that was based on the TV show.

“All of my buddies from school came over and everyone had the bandanas and this and that and had all of the challenges, so we went all-out on the 10th birthday,” Cindric said.

Some of the memories have faded from that day but Cindric recalled one of the games they did that day.

“I do remember there always used to be the food challenge in Survivor, where you had to eat the gross foods and not throw up,” he said. “I think we did a certain extent of that, not too far, but I do remember one where you had the Oreo on top of your head and you’ve got to get the Oreo in your mouth without using your hands.”

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Friday 5: Trackhouse duo completes long road to Cup playoffs originally appeared on NBCSports.com