Wall-hugging Chastain, red-hot Bell eye 1st NASCAR title

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ross Chastain skyrocketed to motorsports infamy for wall-riding his way into NASCAR’s championship race with a video-game style move that has overshadowed the finale and his fellow title contenders.

With that comes a ton of pressure on the eighth-generation Florida watermelon farmer and journeyman NASCAR driver who once took a side gig driving a motorhome to races just to earn extra cash.

This year, his first with second-year team Trackhouse Racing, has been the breakout the 29-year-old has long been chasing. Chastain’s decision to slam his Chevrolet into the Martinsville Speedway wall and ride it into the fourth and final playoff spot just might have made him the fan favorite in Sunday’s winner-take-all finale at Phoenix Raceway.

In his 151st career Cup start, Chastain will race for his first championship.

“There are nerves and there’s anxiety and there is fear of failure. How cool is it that I’m getting to experience this?” he said. “In the moment, it’s not pleasant, the nerves. I wish they would go away.”

The field is stacked.

Christopher Bell has been red-hot with two walk-off wins in a pair of playoff elimination races to advance to his first championship. Bell is the only Toyota driver in the field.

Joey Logano is Ford’s only representative but will try to give Roger Penske both the NASCAR and IndyCar championships in the same season. Will Power won the IndyCar title for Team Penske in September and the organization has never won both championships in the same season.

Logano, the 2018 champion, is aware of what he can deliver for his boss. Penske celebrated his 85th birthday in February when Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500 for the team.

“I know that is on the line. The goal is still the same, whether the IndyCar guys won the championship or not,” Logano said. “We need to do our side of the job. It would be obviously a little cherry on top of the weekend to be able to say we’ve won both.

“Probably makes the championship party a little better. Bigger, for sure.”

And then there’s Chase Elliott, the 2020 champion who began a streak of two consecutive Cup championships for Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Larson was eliminated in the first round, so Elliott in his Chevrolet is Hendrick’s only shot at winning three straight Cup titles.

NASCAR’s most popular driver won the regular-season crown and led the Cup standings most of the year. But he’s had a mediocre playoffs and only won at Talladega — his career-high fifth win of the season.

“He’s had some situations where the car wasn’t as good as we thought it would be, and he was frustrated,” Rick Hendrick said. “You run good at Phoenix, you’ve won that race, you’ve won the championship. He’s excited. He’s ready. We’ll just put any of the bad luck or inconsistencies we’ve had leading up to this race behind us because it’s all about Sunday.”

Elliott is the favorite to win both the race and the title, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

The driver among the four contenders wins the title. Only Elliott and Logano have raced in the championship finale before. Chastain had never before made the playoffs, and Bell made it to the second round in last year’s playoff debut.

Logano, at 32 years old, is the oldest driver in the championship.

“I think you look at the Cup Series specifically, there’s a youth movement in NASCAR,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “We saw that youth movement a couple years ago kind of start to take hold and take root. But you need to win, right? It’s one thing to have young drivers come into our Cup Series, but could they win? They’ve proven again and again and again this year that they can.”

SPLIT TITLE

An anomaly in the standings this year could produce the first split driver and owner championships of NASCAR’s modern era.

It’s happened twice before in the Cup Series: Joe Weatherly won the driver title in 1963, while Wood Brothers Racing won the team title. In 1954, Lee Petty won the driver title and Herb Thomas won the owner title.

At Phoenix in the season finale, Kyle Larson could split the championships.

Why is it important?

NASCAR’s owner points determine the financial payouts from the points fund.

So should Larson, who was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round, defend last year’s Phoenix victory, then the No. 5 for Chevrolet would win the owner title for Rick Hendrick. The driver championship would go to the highest-finishing driver of the four contenders, and if that is Elliott, then Hendrick would win both titles.

“An ideal situation is if we could go out and run one-two and get them both,” Hendrick said. “We’re not going to approach the race any different than we have any week. Both cars are going to try to win. We’ll just go out and do the best we can and see where it all ends up. We’re going to try to race to win with both cars. That’s the plan.”

STATE OF THE SPORT

Two of NASCAR’s top executives gave an update on the state of the industry, addressing everything from the revenue model teams have called broken to officiating and the new Next Gen car.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps did not rule out expanding the stock car series “north and south of the border” as news of next year’s street race in Chicago has driven interest from multiple cities.

The charter system in place with teams expires at the end of the 2024 season and ownership last month complained that NASCAR’s business model no longer financially works for them. Phelps said the system has been successful and works for NASCAR, but could not guarantee it will survive negotiations with teams.

“The charter system, although not perfect, has worked really well,” Phelps said. “We have people out there that want to get charters who are both in the sport and are outside of the sport that can’t get them right now because the teams are holding them. Do I think we’ll extend the charters? I do. Do I think it’s a good thing for the sport? I do.”

NASCAR’s television package with Fox and NBC Sports also expires in 2024 and that deal likely needs to be completed before team owners can negotiate a new charter agreement.

“I’m not sure where the future’s going to be with respect to our media partners,” Phelps said. “I do know that it will go through NBC and Fox. Whether there are additional folks that want to come bid and we get to that particular point, I have no idea. I do know there is a significant amount of interest in NASCAR from those that are not our incumbents. That’s a good thing for our industry.”

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