NASCAR Cup Series
How the Gateway Cup Race Was Won and Lost
Jun 6, 2022
Time will tell if the Next Gen car is a panacea for all that previously ailed NASCAR, but the new car appears to be a significant booster shot in the moment if nothing else.
Sundays are tremendous fun right now.
Through the first 15 races of the Cup Series season, there have been elements for every type of motorsports fan with countless storylines to generate interest and enthusiasm during the dog days of summer leading up to the playoffs.
Oh my gosh, the Playoffs!
Can you imagine what the Cup Series playoffs are going to be like if this level of intensity and parity continues over the next three months?
11 different winners.
No one with more than two wins.
No one with more than 13 playoff points.
The possibility of more than 16 regular season winners.
Say what you will about Ross Chastain, but his ascension to the championship mix at the highest level combined with his immediate acumen driving this new platform has shaken up the dynamic of the Cup Series in all the best ways.
It’s reminiscent of the peak seasons of Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing in the mid-2000s when Smoke was running up front every week but generally drawing the ire of literally everyone alongside an equally polarizing cast of characters like Kevin Harvick, Ricky Rudd and Kurt Busch.
Sure, there were the Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte archetypes just like we have the William Byron, Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell types today, but the healthiest version of NASCAR requires a diverse village of personalities to cheer and jeer.
Chastain, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are pulling you into this world for the drama and theatrics but the quality of racing should keep you here.
Sure, Charlotte, Gateway and Austin featured some clusterstuff moments, but Richmond and Phoenix were pit strategy races and Darlington was good ole fashioned Darlington. There is a dirt race now, too!
It’s all very compelling.
The most popular driver in the discipline, Chase Elliott, is leading the championship standings which is all some need on Sundays through November. Meanwhile, Chastain, Hamlin, Busch, Kyle Larson, Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick are providing moments.
And unlike the past three years of forced restart driven social media moments, this year has generated authentic heat of the moment moments frequently created by long green flag runs, tire fall-off and a car that is just a pain in the butt to drive everywhere on the schedule.
The moments are fueled by hard racing drivers who occasionally have different opinions on what is acceptable race craft.
In implementing this new car, NASCAR hoped to create a world that placed a lesser emphasis on engineering while providing a larger spotlight on the personalities of its biggest stars and their respective driving styles.
The Next Gen isn’t a panacea yet. It’s still an incredibly expensive car with a tremendous amount of up-front overhead. While producing the best intermediate track racing in well over a decade, that has come at the expense of short tracks and flat tracks. The car is too draggy, produces too much dirty air on single lane tracks and allows for too much corner entry speed.
And despite those challenges at a place like Gateway, the drivers still put on a captivating show in front of a sold-out Worldwide Technology Raceway in the shadow of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
That felt throwback too with a long line outside of the track to get in with a green flag television visual that looked like something out of those aforementioned mid-2000s peak years. Sure, some of that is a new market aberration, but it also says something about Los Angeles and St. Louis that both markets had an appetite for NASCAR.
Both events delivered on the meal, too.
The NASCAR Cup Series has a racey car that should only get better due to the fixed nature of spec racing, a tremendous cast of characters, rivalries and a diverse schedule. As we say on the Gulf Coast, Laissez les bons temps rouler, or let the good times roll.
These are good times in NASCAR.
It spoke volumes that Ross Chastain apologized so deeply and humbly after the race on Sunday.
Usually so steadfast and convicted in his beliefs, race craft and approach, Chastain rarely concedes misdeeds on the track, but this time was different.
Maybe this was a series of steps too far, too many drivers effectively punted or just the realization after 13 races that the target on his back had grown too large for a driver with legitimate championship aspirations this coming autumn.
"I owe half the field an apology," Chastain said. "And words aren’t going to fix it, so I’ll have to pay for it on the track and almost did today. And I deserve everything that they do. I just can’t believe that I continue to make the same mistakes and overdrive the corners and drive into guys.
"I had time under caution to get reset, and we go green and I drive into somebody again. That’s terrible."
But it spoke even greater volumes that Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks so strongly and immediately came to the aid of his driver -- both to NBC’s Dustin Long and on Twitter after the race.
"Honestly, I don’t think there’s a single thing Ross Chastain did wrong today, not a single thing," Marks told NBC Sports. "This is a very, very competitive sport and you fight for every single inch.
"The thing is that he’s a newcomer in the top five and the established top-five guys don’t like there’s a newcomer there. I’m super, super proud of him. He’s very aggressive. That’s what is required in winning races and ultimately it’s going to get him to where he’s going to be a NASCAR champion -- his aggression matched with his talent."
What a boss, right?
While it’s easy to say Marks is simply standing up for his guy, it’s equally fair to say there is a degree of calculation in this response as well. The last thing Justin Marks wants is his championship level driver, already with two wins, getting in his own head … or worse … letting Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott live rent free within it.
Look, it was legitimately hard to pass on Sunday and these cars push like a dump truck in traffic. Chastain was getting everything he could on restarts. Even if he took it a step too far at Gateway, that aggression has gotten him to this level for a reason.
Authenticity and boldness are at the core of what Trackhouse is as a brand. A version of Ross Chastain that is less authentic and more reserved simply doesn’t work on the track or away from it and Justin Marks knows that.
That isn’t to say Hamlin, Elliott, or even an AJ Allmendinger, doesn’t have a point to make. This has always been a self-policing garage as race control surely wasn’t touching it on Sunday at Gateway. At least, NASCAR seemingly won’t touch it until there is an intentional retaliatory contact between the two.
It was written here that Chastain has taken a eye for a head approach, as opposed to eye for an eye, anytime he gets roughed up first. The natural next step of that is more than a figurative head.
Chastain is so successful because of his tendencies in this version of the NASCAR Cup Series, but frequently at the expense of his fellow competitors. It’s only historically appropriate that they would respond both out of a sense of selfish preservation but also to preserve their respective driving codes.
This isn’t new.
Cale Yarborough/Darrell Waltrp
Darrell Waltrip/Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt/Rusty Wallace
Rusty Wallace/Jeff Gordon
Jimmy Spencer/Kurt Busch
Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski
Matt Kenseth/Joey Logano
Someday, Chastain will enforce his own philosophy upon the next generation. Perhaps that philosophy will be influenced by Hamlin or maybe it will be reinforced by the team owner that told him never to never doubt himself.
It’s all cyclical