Ross Chastain was aware of the NASCAR championship fight but didn’t care to concede a race win. Ryan Blaney didn’t care for how Chastain was driving because he was trying to ride and hide for his championship rivals.
The difference in philosophies led to a few tense moments past the lap 250 mark on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway as the two battled and traded the lead. Chastain drove hard and clean but used the air to his advantage. Blaney expressed his growing frustration with Chastain over his radio, and at one point drove deep into Turns 1 and 2 and ran into the back of the Trackhouse Racing driver.
“I was not going to crash him,” Chastain said. “I was not going to use my front bumper, side fenders, anything. Dirty air? Different story. Yeah, I’m going to. I’m going to keep the lead because that’s everything.
“Before the second to last run, I thought we had him covered. Coming to the end of Stage 2, the 17 (Chris Buescher) drove by me, made some adjustments, (and) got too loose. We were too tight, too loose, too tight again when Blaney and the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) right there when the last caution came out. I asked Phil [Surgen] and our group to please let me turn better, make the car turn better without giving up any rear grip.
“I know he’s mad and I don’t care. I do not care. I did not care then; I do not care now. I’m here to race him. I’m not going to wreck him. I gave him the bottom most times. One time I was inside of him after he got by me, I crossed back over into (Turn) 3 and I made sure to wrap the bottom. I’m not going to slide up and pinch him at all. It’s in my mind the entire time, for sure.”
Chastain led a race-high 157 laps. He took the lead for the final time with 29 laps to go, two laps after the race restarted for the final time. Blaney finished second in the race and won the championship. Down the stretch, Chastain went unchallenged as Blaney worked his way past fellow title contenders Kyle Larson and William Byron.
But Blaney had already made it clear how he felt about Chastain. Over the radio, Blaney called him a “piece of (expletive)” and “air blocking mother (expletive).” And according to Chastain, there might have been a middle finger used, too.
“There’s no secret that I can snap on the radio,” Blaney said. “That’s been my whole life. That’s been my whole career. It’s just kind of something I do. The fact that Ross said I raced him hard, the dude blocked three lanes in the corner of every lap. I don’t know how I’m racing him hard.
“When you look in the mirror going left, right, left, following wherever I go, I don’t understand how he thinks I’m racing him hard. He’s backing me up to (Larson). I have to go. He’s backing me up to Larson to where I’m going to be in trouble.”
There was no denial from Blaney that he ran into the back of Chastain on purpose.
“(Expletive) right I hit him on purpose,” Blaney said. “He blocked me on purpose 10 times. So, yeah, I hit him on purpose. What do you expect me to do? He’s backing me up to the other championship guy and I got to go.
“We were just racing hard. But do I think he was over-excessive on the blocks? Yes, very much so. Did I hit him? Yes, I did. That’s just part of it.”
Chastain became the first non-championship contender to win the finale in the elimination era (2014 to present). In doing so, Chastain bucked the trend and perception that the championship contenders are given more space and guaranteed positions.
“I’m proud that we won,” Chastain said. “I watched practice back [on] Saturday morning. I heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. say, ‘Ross will be one, get up and race these guys.’ I paused it and I’m like, ‘Would I do that? I don’t know. That seems kind of aggressive.’ I clicked it. I didn’t really have an answer for myself. I asked myself, would I race them? I was like, I’ll race ’em. He’s like, ‘He’s going to race ’em aggressive, he’s going to do it. If there is anybody that will do it, he’ll do it.’ Whatever he said.
“Then I got out there and I was like, I’m doing it, I am racing them. The difference was I’m not going to use my front bumper, front fenders, side. I’m not going to pinch them up into the wall. I didn’t mean to fence Larson at Darlington, but I did it. I was not going to do that. I was not going to drive into the corner.
“When he cleared me down into (Turn) 1, I’m not going to try to make it anything other than cross him over and do it clean, have leverage into (Turn) 3, wrap the bottom. It worked. I was like, holy cow. He passed me, he’s faster, but I got right back by him. I don’t think he led the lap.
“In my mind the whole time, proud of the precision driving we all did. The only contact was him just in a moment of anger throttling up in (Turns) 1 and 2 and drive square up into my back bumper. Other than that, no contact. That’s what I’m here to do.”