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Ross Chastain seeks balance

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is still lurching toward its midway point, and Ross Chastain has already occupied opposite ends of the spectrum of the season’s most emotionally charged moments.

There were the springtime heights of his first two big-league victories, each one punctuated with raucous celebrations involving bear hugs and smashed fruit. Then the lows. That breakthrough victory at Circuit of The Americas came at the expense of a dented and distraught AJ Allmendinger after a final-lap collision. He also drew the anger of championship contenders Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin at the Gateway inaugural, and then struck an apologetic tone afterward — almost too apologetic amid the glare of the TV cameras, he says now.

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Through it all, the 29-year-old Floridian has ridden to the top tier of the Cup Series standings entering Sunday’s Kwik Trip 250 presented by Jockey Made in America (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at Road America. Chastain says he wants to stay true to the approach that’s gotten him here, but that he’s also keenly aware of the incidents that have pockmarked his campaign to date. That, he’s trying to mend.

“They’re in my head all the time and trying to kind of balance that is a challenge,” Chastain said Thursday, noting that his recent track record has sometimes factored into and influenced his on-track decisions. “Unfortunately, there’s been a few instances in the last month or so where the thought has come too late or I didn’t do a good enough job to see it through. So yeah, I look back at some of the moves that I make and stuff and I’m like damn it, I can be better in those instances. So it’s a work in progress.”

Chastain’s aggressive driving style isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just that this season, his hard-edged approach has been on more prominent display — regularly at the front of the pack in the Cup Series, instead of further back in the premier-series pack or during the national-series preliminaries.

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That elevated echelon has been spurred on by the meteoric rise of his Trackhouse Racing team, the second-year organization owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull. The performance uptick has made Cup Series winners of both Chastain and teammate Daniel Suárez this season, and the two-car operation is 2-for-2 on road courses so far in 2022. “This isn‘t just a moment, but this an arrival of Trackhouse,” Chastain said, a nod to the ongoing fulfillment of Marks’ sweeping vision.

That upward arc against more established teams has been one of the season’s most impactful stories. But the burbling feuds and the “Ross Chastain vs. everybody” headlines have siphoned away a smidge of the feel-good thunder. By some measures, Chastain has clawed and scrapped to make it to the Cup Series level. Now that he’s here, he’s striving for some middle ground.

“Like if I can just clean up that kind of stuff, you know, just race with a little cooler head in the car where I can still … I still want to pass these guys, I still want to pass the cars in front of me, but let’s do it a little bit better way,” Chastain says. “You know, I’m all for … being you know, the show sometimes, and I’m good, I’m OK with that. I’ve accepted that, but I probably don’t need to be it every single week. For my liking, there’s been a bit too much attention on me. You know, it’s … most of it’s my own doing.”

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With that extra attention has come additional clamor from the grandstands during driver introductions, a trend he says began to turn around 2019. That season, Chastain added his second victory in the Xfinity Series, but his mid-stream switch to collecting Camping World Truck Series points in a mission for that tour’s championship resonated. He made it all the way to the final four and wound up second in his “Melon Man Challenge” title quest.

Those were the days when a 10th-place finish in that year’s Daytona 500 was something to strut about. Top 10s come fairly frequently for Chastain now, and so do the accolades from a growing rooting section.

“I remember when the first time it got a little loud in a truck race and now it’s, it’s wild,” Chastain says. “It’s hard to in the moment, like you walk out and it’s just a big grandstand or an infield grass area, the ballfield, they’re full of people. The Daytona 500 is just obviously the biggest buzz that I’ve felt. And it’s wild, and I don’t know how to explain it really. … It’s so hard to describe.

“And I have had those moments where they boo and it catches you off guard. It’s like ‘what, oh. Somebody really doesn’t like me.’ I gotta be honest, though, there’s been a lot more cheers lately, which is, I didn’t know which way this kind of stuff would go. So it’s a lot more cheers lately.”