Bad Boy Ross Chastain May Be the Talk of NASCAR, But 'He Hasn't Listened to Anybody'
The Jarretts have been NASCAR royalty for the better part of eight decades. If the sport had maintained a police-type blotter since its founding in 1949, two-time champion Ned Jarrett and one-time champion Dale Jarrett would be nowhere to be found.
Well… maybe a jaywalking citation or two. That’s about it.
Ned won 50 races, the 1961 and 1965 Cup Series titles, and easily made the sport’s Hall of Fame. He was often called “Gentleman Ned,” a nod to his on- and off-track demeanor. He may have approached some lines, but apparently never crossed them. After racing, he became a likeable and respected television analyst. Indeed, CBS-TV chose him in 1984 to interview President Ronald Reagan after Richard Petty’s 200th victory at Daytona International Speedway.
With eldest son, Dale, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. He won 32 races, the 1999 championship, and also was a cinch for the Hall of Fame in Charlotte. Like his father, he became a popular and respected television personality, adding insight and context to NASCAR telecasts. People deep inside the sport and long-time fans can’t remember a time when he dishonored his family in any way.
That’s why it might seem surprising that Dale hasn’t joined the chorus of NASCAR-watchers ready to throw current “bad boy” Ross Chastain under the nearest bus or hang him from the highest tree. Dale’s very public support of stock car racing’s most-criticized driver came during an interview the day before last weekend’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway. (Earlier in the week, former driver Kyle Petty also defended Chastain’s style, saying the Florida native wasn’t racing to make friends).
“I haven’t seen anything whatsoever to indicate that Ross is a dirty driver,” Jarrett said, referring to Chastain’s unapologetically aggressive style that has roughed up almost everyone over the past few years. “His style is his style, and it’s very good. I hope he doesn’t change that style because of pressures that come from outside. He has to do what got him here and got him opportunities. I hope he continues that because it’s a style that has suited others well through the years.”
But Jarrett then softened his stance just a bit. “That style is not for everybody,” he cautioned. “The media and fans don’t want everybody to be the same. I think this is his style, and the way he’s going about it, getting blamed for everything that happen on the damned track is, in my opinion, getting a little old. Hell, guys on the opposite side of the track (not involved in any incidents) are saying it was Ross’ fault. It’s getting a little ridiculous.”
A quick bio: Chastain went from Southern short tracks to the Camping World series in 2011. After some success there, he did reasonably well when he reached Xfinity in 2014. He reached Cup in 2017 and within a few years—first with Chip Ganassi Racing, now Trackhouse Racing—began taking on some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, and Alex Bowman. After virtually every incident, Chastain owns it, apologizes, and vows to do better.
Until the next race, that is.
Busch, a two-time champion, was once known as something of a “bad boy” himself. He said he tried to counsel Chastain years ago, but his advice went largely unheeded. (Veteran series-watchers are reminded of two brothers from Las Vegas who didn’t always listen to reason, either. Each became a champion and is Hall of Fame bound).
“I talked to him either after the Darlington thing with Kevin Harvick (after a 2018 Xfinity race) or his next one,” Busch said. “He asked me a couple of questions and I talked to him about it. I told him, ‘Don’t be the headline every week; chill a little bit; don’t push and force as hard each week.’ But he hasn’t learned. He hasn’t listened to anybody and I’m sure there’s more than me that have tried to talk to him. I’m not sure what that is.
“I’ve had issues with a lot of guys, and Ross has been the most frustrating because he has it (the aggressive approach) every single week. When it happens with you, because it’s every single week and it’s so repetitive with one guy, then you get even more frustrated because it’s like the guy hasn’t even learned a single lesson or any bullet point of what the problem is.
“There’s a common denominator: he’s got an aggressive style. Well, we’re all aggressive to a point because we’re all pushing hard and trying to make runs, get spots, get good finishes. We’re all selfish, but there was an etiquette that lived here. I think Mark Martin started it. I think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon really lived by it. Bobby Labonte and Rusty Wallace, for the most part (lived it). Dale Jarrett for sure lived by it. It did exist. That etiquette seems to have gone away in the past few years.”
Larson, who crashed with Chastain on a late-race restart at Darlington, blames some of the sport’s increased aggression on the two-year-old Next Gen car. Unlike Cup Series cars before last season, today’s cars are more durable, better able to take a punch without ending up on the business end of a wrecker. In some ways, the new cars encourage aggressive driving.
“These cars are tougher than the ones we used to drive,” the 2021 Cup Series champion said. “You can get into somebody now and it might not damage your car. A few years ago, you might take yourself out if you went after somebody. As much as anything, that’s why the racing seems so intense. The pressure to win today is the same as it was 10 years ago, so that’s not an issue. It’s just that with these cars, you don’t mind getting into someone.”
With contending teams bringing cars that are technologically and mechanically similar, Busch says drivers try to make up the difference. “They feel they’re the difference and they need to make up the difference if they’re not running upfront or contending every week,” he explained. “So, they’re going to push harder, run into more stuff and run into more guys because they’re trying to get a better finish. A little bit of this car and the parity of this car allows drivers to be more aggressive and push harder.”
Despite his on-track issues, Chastain remains a favorite with fans who remember that Darrell Waltrip, the Busch brothers, Logano, and especially Dale Earnhardt were often considered rough drivers. He says he’s comfortable making other drivers uncomfortable, but it doesn’t always come across as well as he’d like.
“But just being myself is the best thing I can do and if people like it, they do,” he said at Darlington. “No matter what, I’m proud to be moving the needle. I hear it, I see it. People come to me, either online or in person, and they’re telling me the good and the bad, and I kind of just walk away and I’m like – that’s pretty wild that they’re watching my racing and they care that much. I’m learning to become comfortable in that role, too.”