Ongoing Cup rivalry claims Chastain as collateral damage in Nashville

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Instead of celebrating the final day of June by smashing watermelon on concrete in the summer heat, or with a podium finish at worst, Ross Chastain ended up a product of collateral damage from an ongoing rivalry between two NASCAR Cup Series heavyweights at Nashville Superspeedway.

With 51 laps remaining in the Ally 400, Chastain was in position to go back-to-back at Trackhouse Racing’s home track, after a two-tire strategy call enabled him to maneuver his No. 1 Busch Light Country-sponsored Chevrolet Camaro around Ryan Blaney – who wasn’t on the same pit cycle – for the lead.

Coming to six laps remaining, Chastain led 45 laps and rode the preferred inside lane into Turn 2, but bobbled on his entry and washed up the track, opening the lane for a hard-charging Denny Hamlin in pursuit of his fourth win this season on four, fresh Goodyears.

Before Hamlin could take the white flag, a caution waved for Austin Cindric, bunching up a top-three consisting of Hamlin, Chastain and Kyle Larson.

By this point, most everyone knows the history between Hamlin and Chastain. However, the driver of the No. 11 has also developed a reputation for roughing up Larson over the past few seasons, and especially as of late.

As recently as last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Hamlin ran into the No. 5, which prompted Larson’s spotter Tyler Monn to call out his driver for constantly being on the receiving end without any retaliation.

At the end of Stage Two in Nashville, Larson completed a last-second pass on Hamlin for third, then ran the No. 11 high after the green-and-white-checkered flag waved. Directly after, the 43-year-old proceeded to provide a few nudges to the rear bumper of the No. 5 to show his displeasure.

Following the choose for the first overtime restart, Larson lined up behind Hamlin on the bottom lane, while Chastain opted for the outside on the front row. As the field stormed down the frontstretch into Turn 1, the 2021 champ hardly let off the gas and hammered the rear of the No. 11.

Driving it in too deep, Larson’s left-front clipped the apron and shot up into Chastain’s Camaro, effectively ending his shot at a win or runner-up finish, as well as snapping a six-race top-15 stretch with a 33rd-place outing.

“The Busch Light Country Chevy has a shot to win,” Chastain said. “It’s so cool to come back here to Nashville, the birthplace of Trackhouse, where Justin Marks moved his family and started this idea of this Cup team. To come back and have another shot at the win is absolutely incredible.”

In the end, both Hamlin and Larson were unable to break through for a series-best fourth victory of the season, after the initial caution on Lap 299 spurred a record five overtime attempts with fuel mileage being a major issue for many teams.

On the third green-white-checkered attempt, Larson restarted on the front row to the outside of Hamlin and ran out of fuel before making it out of the restart zone, bringing out yet another yellow. This would also end up being the nail in the coffin for the No. 11 team, as crew chief Chris Cabehart called his driver to pit road to top off on gas.

Larson fared the best in eighth, while Hamlin came 12th and Joey Logano scored his first points-paying win of 2024.

“Just a lot of craziness there at the end,” Larson said. “There were a lot of cars short on fuel and we were one of them. On the first restart, I was just trying to get Denny washed off the bottom so that I could get some clean air and give myself an opportunity to win. I felt like from the second position, I wouldn’t have a chance. 

“I just tried to run in with him and got myself really tight into Ross, so (that) caused that crash. And then on the next restart, I just got out of shape and almost caused a crash there. On the third one, we ran out of fuel taking off. Happy to get a top-10, but a little bit bummed how it transpired.”

“We ran out under caution,” Hamlin said. “(Gabehart) was monitoring fuel pressure. We were fine just running out of gas and we did under caution. It was the right call. I’m surprised we lasted that many green-white-checkers honestly. Certainly, stinks being 15 seconds from a win at the end, and then 10 seconds from a win, and then to finish 12th. It’s just part of it.”

After qualifying 20th, Chastain struggled to navigate through traffic and spent a majority of Stage One challenging for the top-15. With more of the same result nearing the end of the second segment, crew chief Phil Surgen made a bold, two-tire strategy call to put his driver into the top-five for the first time all day.

During that same service, the No. 1 team was penalized for equipment interference, sending Chastain to the tail-end of the field. He was able to stabilize in the top-15, before a redemptive two-tire call on Lap 220, which put him in position to pass Blaney for the lead with just over 50 to go.

Although Chastain wound up 33rd, the Melon Man and No. 1 crew put forth one of their most valiant efforts all season, and they still remain 66 points above the cutoff with five spots up for grabs and six races until the regular-season finale.

Next up is the Chicago Street Course, where Chastain finished 22nd, but his Trackhouse Racing teammate Shane Van Gisbergen went to victory lane in his first Cup start. 

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