Last year, in only its sophomore season of NASCAR Cup Series competition, Trackhouse Racing earned its first three victories, advanced to the championship final round, and along the way, turned in an iconic race move nicknamed the “Hail Melon” that will never be repeated, yet forever celebrated.
How do you follow that kind of year? By immediately challenging for the 2023 championship.
And that’s exactly what Trackhouse Racing is doing. Driver Ross Chastain, who made that dramatic wall-hugging maneuver at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway to earn a Final Four championship bid, is currently tops in the NASCAR Cup Series standings.
His Trackhouse teammate, Daniel Suarez, is ranked fourth in the championship, only 25 points behind.
Both positions are career highs. The 30-year old Floridian Chastain previously spent a single week atop the standings – earning that ranking as he headed to the Phoenix championship race after his Martinsville Miracle. He claimed Trackhouse’s very first two wins last – at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
For the 31-year-old Mexican native, Suarez, his present standing marks the first time he’s ever been in the Top-5 of the NASCAR Cup Series championship points.
There is a certain irony to Chastain’s top ranking with the NASCAR Cup Series as it makes its spring stop at Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX). He’s essentially in the same place he was the last time the series raced on the Phoenix mile – and the motivation to score his first victory of 2023 is equally as palpable.
The Trackhouse Racing team, one of the most innovative in NASCAR, calculated that Chastain finished 235 feet behind Joey Logano in the Phoenix season-ending race. That distance was the difference in the championship. So during the offseason, Trackhouse painted the curbs of its shop facility in “Phoenix blue” for 235 feet as you enter the grounds – with the numbers 2-3-5 in huge white paint that every team member must drive over every day they drive into the facility.
At first, Chastain said it was kind of a painful memory to see how close he came to NASCAR championship status, but as the weeks went on, he understood how it serves as a huge motivation tool not just for the drivers but all the team members that support them. Every day.
“I actually smile when I drive over it now because it was that close,” Chastain said. “It’s going to take a lot to get back there. But it does motivate me, which is weird. I don’t really understand it, but it does.”
I actually smile when I drive over it now because it was that close. It’s going to take a lot to get back there. But it does motivate me, which is weird.
And clearly it has.
Chastain currently holds a three-point edge on Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman in the championship. His three stage wins in the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet are the most in the series and account for half the stage wins available on the year. He has a pair of Top-10 finishes and a season-best showing of third place at California two weeks ago. His 97 laps led is second only to last week’s Las Vegas winner William Byron’s 176 total laps led.
Suarez is on a similar path of excellence joining Bowman as the only two drivers to boast a perfect 3-for-3 in Top-10 finishes to start the season. His best finish in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet is a fourth place at California.
“We are off to a good start,” said Suarez, who earned his first career win last year on the Sonoma, Calif. road course.
“We have had rocket ships at most of the races. You can always be better, but Trackhouse Racing is giving us great equipment and our pit stops have been really fast this season.”
Phoenix has proven to be an interesting proving ground for both Trackhouse drivers. Chastain has never had a Top-10 starting position or led a single lap in nine career starts at the desert mile. However, last year, he finished runner-up to Chase Briscoe in this spring race and then third place in the Fall championship – his best career efforts.
Suarez has three Top-10 finishes in 12 Phoenix starts with a best showing of seventh place in his 2017 NASCAR Cup Series debut on the track. As with Chastain, however, he has never led a lap. Suarez finished ninth in this spring race last year – his previous Top-10 (eighth place) was in 2018.
The series will have an adjusted rules package for this weekend’s race with less downforce than when it raced at Phoenix in November.
“I just try to wrap my head around putting the car at the limit for one lap,” Chastain said. “It’s high-risk, but it is high-reward to start up front. Last fall at Phoenix, it obviously took us a while to get up front and we don’t want that to happen again.”
-Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images