By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
After a season of career-firsts – a maiden victory and a dramatic lap to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race – Ross Chastain insisted he felt more hopeful than disappointed after coming up short of hoisting his first major racing trophy on Sunday.
Chastain’s No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet finished third in the Phoenix Raceway season finale – 1.2-seconds behind the winner, and newly-crowed 2022 series champion Joey Logano. After moving forward from a 25th-place starting spot on the grid and competing inside the top five for most of the final laps, Chastain felt confident that he and the two-year-old Trackhouse Racing team had done all it could. And, if nothing else, set the stage for future championship runs.
“The emotions are surprisingly good,” said Chastain, who earned his first two NASCAR Cup Series wins this season (at the Circuit of The Americas road course and at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“I’m not sad, I’m not upset. … I actually can’t believe how good I feel. I’m so proud and so happy to get this first shot in the championship,” he added.
The other two championship-eligible drivers, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott finished 10th and 28th, respectively – both having to overcome different challenges on Sunday
Bell and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization received heart-breaking news in the hours immediately before the race that Coy Gibbs – the team’s Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer – and son of team founder Joe Gibbs – had passed away the night before at the age of 49.
Bell said the team met and decided it should still race on Sunday. And he ran among the top-10 for much of the day, despite the tough circumstances.
“That was an experience unlike I’ve ever gone through in my entire life,” Bell said. ‘In that moment, you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. If you should get in the race car and race or you shouldn’t race. Myself, Denny [Hamlin] and the other JGR drivers were all in the same boat, we didn’t know what to do.
“[JGR President] Dave Alpern actually came back to the race track right before driver intros and told us, ‘you need to go out there and race’ and that’s what we did.
“Definitely just an incredible twist of emotion and a perspective change for sure. You think that this is the big picture then you get news like this and realize it’s the small picture in the grand scheme of things.”
Elliott, who won the Regular Season Championship, also spent time at the front of the field, but contact between his and Chastain’s Chevrolets on a re-start with a little more than 100 laps remaining sent his Chevrolet spinning into the wall. The team worked on the car, but Elliot ultimately finished the race two laps down.
“I’m not sure, I’m not sure,” Elliott repeatedly answered when asked about the incident with him and Chastain. “Looking forward to the offseason and really proud of our team for the fight we put in today. Like we just kind of peaked right before we crashed, got our car driving pretty good, just had our best pit stop of the day so that was all solid, and we were right there next to the 22 [Logano].
“Thought we had a shot at it all the way up until we didn’t.”
For both Chastain and Bell, 2022 marked the best NASCAR Cup Series season of their careers statistically. It was the first Championship 4 appearance for both, as well.
Chastain, 29, of Alva, Florida, spent 19 weeks ranked among the top three in the championship standings, earned his first two NASCAR Cup Series wins and more than doubled his previous single season marks for top-five (15) and top-10 (21) finishes.
Bell, 27, of Norman, Oklahoma, scored three wins and career highs in top-five (12) and top-10 (20) finishes.
Elliott, 26, of Dawsonville, Ga., tied his career best mark in wins (five) and earned 12 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. His three pole positions were most in his seven fulltime seasons.