'Melon Man' Ross Chastain hopes to rekindle NASCAR magic at Nashville Superspeedway (2024)

LEBANON, Tenn. (AP) — Firsts are never forgotten, and Ross Chastain hopes to tap the magic he found at the Nashville Superspeedway a year ago to jumpstart the second half of his season.

Chastain earned the first pole of his career here, then went on to win the Ally 400 giving Trackhouse Racing its first victory at its home track. Starting from the pole and winning snapped a 42-race skid for Chastain, allowing him to celebrate in his signature style by smashing a watermelon.

“That’s a moment that I will never forget, let alone the win ...,” Chastain said. “That played a role that night. That’s a very unique track. It takes a very unique car set up and driving style from my side that, it applies to some other places, but, a lot of things came together that night.”

The driver from a long line of Florida watermelon farmers hasn’t won since the 2023 finale in Phoenix. He comes into Sunday’s race at the 1.33-mile concrete oval ninth in points with two top fives among seven top 10 finishes, including 10th last week at New Hampshire.

Without a win, Chastain ranks 12th in the playoff chase. A victory back in Nashville would be a big boost going into the second half of the season.

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“We’re looking to rekindle that at other tracks as well,” Chastain said.

Chastain appeared to be putting things together with crew chief Phil Surgen and their Chevrolet at the end of February finishing seventh at Atlanta, then fourth at Las Vegas to start March. Chastain followed that with a sixth-place finish at Phoenix.

He hasn’t finished higher than seventh since, the last at Sonoma when he came in fifth. Chastain had some contact with Kyle Busch on the last lap, which dropped Busch from fifth to 12th. Chastain said it’s not just one thing they’re missing with the entire team trying to find what can take that next step.

Chastain said Saturday that they’re working for consistency from start to finish and lap by lap.

“I feel like we’re a really consistent 10th-place car,” he said. “A good restart, we’ll go to six and a bad restart I go to 14th. So yeah, it’s just a little bit ... it’s just crumbs now is what we’re looking for to get that top five. And then you see it. With top fives, then you win. You put yourself in position.”

Chasing points and playoff positioning

Kyle Larson currently leads both the NASCAR points standings and playoff chase followed by his Rick Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin in points. Hamlin has three wins tying him with Larson, William Byron and Christopher Bell who got his third last week in the rain at New Hampshire.

Bell said Joe Gibbs Racing has a good package for tracks like the Nashville Superspeedway with their Toyotas with a bit of an intermediate combination.

“It basically is a concrete mile and a half, so it’s like Dover and Vegas, Kansas. Charlotte kind of mixed together,” Bell said. “So, those are all really good places for JGR, and our cars suit this racetrack.”

Larson won here with Hendrick Motorsports in this track’s Cup debut in 2021.

Hamlin on the pole

Hamlin, who already has his playoff berth clinched, earned his second pole this season and first since Phoenix where he finished 11th. Hamlin turned the fastest lap of 160.354 mph in his FedEx Toyota, edging out Tennessee native Josh Berry in his Overstock.com Ford.

Bell and Larson will start on the second row followed by Brad Keselowski and Tyler Reddick.

Personnel changes for struggling Richard Childress Racing

With both Busch and Austin Dillon winless this season, Richard Childress Racing made a change before coming to Nashville. Competition executive Andy Petree announced his retirement from the 55-year-old team. Keith Rodden, a veteran crew chief and race engineer, was named interim replacement.

Petree had been with the team since 1993 starting as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet and helping him to his sixth and seventh Cup Series championships in 1993 and 1994. With Petree as executive vice president, the team made seven playoff appearances from 2017-23.

A return to Nashville might help. Richard Childress Racing’s entries have completed each of the possible 1,800 laps over the past three Cup races here.

Busch hasn’t finished better than ninth since this track started hosting the Cup Series. He has led 76 of the 900 laps he has run, and he dominated a pair of Xfinity Series races here in 2009 and 2021. That second was his 100th career win on that series.

No Las Vegas

Riley Herbst is from Las Vegas, so he doesn’t really buy the nickname of Nashville that some use — Nashvegas.

“I don’t think anything compares to the strip and what Las Vegas has to offer,” Herbst said. “I feel like it’s the greatest city in the country by any means, but I have had a lot of fun down on Broadway, and hopefully I can come back here and have some more fun.”

Nashville has hosted NASCAR’s annual season-ending awards four times from 2019- 2023.

I’m home

Josh Berry is enjoying his first season driving full-time on the Cup Series, It’s his Cup debut Sunday at the closest Cup track for the driver from Hendersonville, Tennessee. Berry knows this concrete oval with two top fives in three Xfinity Series races here.

“It’s exciting to be back here in Nashville,” Berry said before earning the No. 2 starting spot in qualifying.

He finished third in the No. 4 Ford at New Hampshire last week for Stewart-Haas Racing, a team closing up at the end of this season. Berry currently ranks 19th in the driver standings and is 48 points back of the 16th and final playoff position.

Odds and Ends

Larson is the BETMGM Sportsbook favorite to win Sunday.

___ AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

'Melon Man' Ross Chastain hopes to rekindle NASCAR magic at Nashville Superspeedway (2024)

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