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Ross Chastain, watermelon farmer, eager to win at Kansas again

Ross Chastain, watermelon farmer, eager to win at Kansas again

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Ross Chastain, a 29-year-old journeyman and eighth-generation watermelon farmer in his first season with second-year Trackhouse Racing, has become the feel-good story of the NASCAR Cup season heading into Sunday’s Advent 400 at Kansas Speedway.

rsugg@kcstar.com

As Ross Chastain sped toward the checkered flag to win his first career NASCAR trucks series race at Kansas Speedway in 2019, a feeling of panic, not triumph, filled the cockpit.

Chastain realized he forgot to bring the watermelon.

Just as former NASCAR star Carl Edwards celebrated wins with backflips off his race car, and IndyCar’s Helio Castroneves climbs the fence after victories, Chastain’s signature is smashing a watermelon and sampling a piece in Victory Lane, an homage to his family’s eight generations of watermelon farming in Florida.

But Chastain hadn’t won since an Xfinity series race at Las Vegas in 2018, so he could be forgiven to have forgotten the melon.

“Most weeks, I would just get one, have it in my rental car,” Chastain said. “I might bring it into the hauler. But I felt awkward at the time because I didn’t want to feel too confident that I was going to win. This is hard. Way too many people lose in NASCAR than win.

“I got on the radio and yelled, ‘Does anybody have a watermelon?’ And they’re like, ‘We don’t have one.’ So I said, ‘Run around and find one.’ I do my burnouts, come to Victory Lane, get out of the truck, jumped around on top of the roof and asked, ‘Did anyone show up with one?’ The answer was no, so it was an oversight on my part.”

No one is forgetting the watermelons anymore.

Chastain, a 29-year-old journeyman in his first season with second-year Trackhouse Racing, has become the feel-good story of the NASCAR Cup season heading into Sunday’s Advent 400 at Kansas Speedway.

The Melon Man has smashed watermelons to smithereens at Austin and Talladega, less than a year after his previous team, Chip Ganassi Racing, closed its doors and sold its assets to upstart Trackhouse, a owned by former driver Justin Marks and entertainer Pitbull.

But it was the win without a watermelon at Kansas that remains dearest to Chastain’s heart.

“It saved my career… honestly,” Chastain said. “After we started in 2011, we finally won in 2019 … that’s a lot of losing. … My career changed in 2018, when we got that opportunity in the 42 Xfinity car. When that went away, I fully expected to go back to how it used to be.

“A top 10 would be like a win, and we would keep plugging away. To come to Kansas and win with Niece Motorsports early in 2019 and win three more races, it revitalized my career. It was a life changer. “

The Kansas win led to a full-time Xfinity ride in 2020 and an opportunity in the Chip Ganassi No. 42 Chevrolet in 2021 before Chastain learned last June that CGR was selling its operation to Marks.

Marks, who spent 11 years as a NASCAR driver, saw enough in Chastain to give him a two-year contract to be Daniel Suarez’ teammate.

“Ross didn’t really know … ‘Am I a part of this? Do I have a future with the company? What’s the plan here?’” Marks, a native of St. Louis, recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ve always been a huge believer in your talent. I think that you’re prime to break through. I want to put you on a two-year deal so you’ve got some job security. This is your race team. Let’s go win.’

“He just dove right in and committed, and you see the result of it. It’s made everybody in the company believe that great things are possible for this enterprise.”

‘Not supposed to happen’

After starting the season with a last-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a 29th at Las Vegas, the No. 1 team found its footing and reeled off seven top-five finishes in nine races, including the wins at Austin and Talladega — Chastain’s first two Cup victories after 120 starts without a victory.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” Chastain said. “It’s not how this sport operates. You’re supposed to put in your time, build, build, build. We acquired CGR, and together with the new car, it was the perfect scenario. I don’t discount this is where we’re supposed to be… I’m confident with our people. I have the same group pretty much I had on the 42 car last year.

“This year has been incredible. I feel grateful, but we deserve to be where we are.”

Marks, 41, would not have made the investment in NASCAR had it not been for the series’ introduction of the NextGen Car, which has leveled the playing field for smaller teams with the powerhouses of Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.

“The NextGen Car is the sole reason Trackhouse exists,” Chastain said. “Justin Marks got wind of this, did his research, fully bought in on it, and said, “I’m going to be in Cup when that new car unveils. We’re going to jump in a year early, get our feet wet,’ and he did that last year with the 99 of Daniel Suarez.”

While Chastain credits the 2019 trucks win at Kansas as the turning point in his career, he is winless in four cup starts at the track. But a watermelon sits in a special carrier in the front of the No. 1 hauler, just in case.

“We carried around watermelons for years,” he said. “In 2018, when we won our first race in the Xfinity series, they asked what I was going to do with it, so I said, ‘If I smash it up, I’m going to eat it,’ so they videotaped it , and it became our own little viral moment.

“I said, I’d smash one after every win. Fast forward to the next year, and we were racing, but did not win anything and did not want to appear arrogant with having a watermelon.

“There were times where we would be leading races, and someone from the crew would leave the track, with his gear on, and go to the grocery store, running through with his headset on, grab a watermelon, buy it, and run back over…”

In fact, in 2019 at Texas, as Chastain led the Xfinity race, a crew member was dispatched to the grocery store only to return and watch Chastain lose the lead with four laps to go and finish second.

“At least we were prepared,” Chastain said with a smile.

More than a stunt

The watermelon celebration is more than just a shtick. It’s a show of gratitude to his family’s business, which supported Chastain’s foray into the expensive world of motorsports

“It’s such a natural tie to my family,” Chastain said. “I’m selfish. If I can promote my family’s business and what’s put food on our table for generations, I’m going to do it. I don’t apologize for it. There are a lot of people I need to thank whenever we win, but the first thing is watermelons.

“Even if someone is watching in a restaurant, and the sound is muted, and it’s halfway across the restaurant, and they just happen to look over and see this guy doing a smoky burnout and just smashed a watermelon … He’ll say, ‘ Maybe I’ll buy one when I go to the grocery store tomorrow.’

“Then I’ve done my job.”

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