"Let’s fight": The inside story of Ross Chastain’s lost ride, a settled grudge, and a bonus ride...

LewTheShoe

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Ross Chastain gets my vote as the #1 Nascar story of the year so far. What an incredible roller coaster ride his life has been in recent months... fairy tale achievements followed by crushing blows from unexpected circumstances then rising again from the depths, rinse and repeat. But it all seems to be working out for the 26-year-old driver, who shows up each week with plenty of persistence, grit, and racing skill. I hope me writing that doesn't jinx the Watermelon Man!

And now Brett Griffin, well known spotter and podcaster, has added his unique perspective via a column published in The Athletic (link for subscribers). Brett's insider, behind-the-curtain piece is highly entertaining... and should be required reading for cynics who think Daddy's money is the only way forward in racing.

Ross Chastain Brad Kez Truck 2013.jpg


"Let’s fight": The inside story of Ross Chastain’s lost ride, a settled grudge, and a bonus ride at Daytona

By Brett Griffin, Published by The Athletic

For those of you who don’t already know me, my name is Brett Griffin. I’m @SpotterBrett on Twitter, half of the “Door Bumper Clear” podcast on Dirty Mo Radio and someone who has been around this sport for over 20 years as a spotter, marketer and driver manager. I’m thrilled The Athletic has asked me to contribute from time to time and hope you get some knowledge or at least some entertainment from these posts. So, let’s go.

I’m pretty sure you’re well familiar with Ross Chastain by now. If not – as I like to say on my show – what an idiot! Where have you been?

OK, I’ll be honest. There was a time not so long ago when I personally had heard of Ross but paid very little attention. As luck would have it, that was about to change in a big way. And having worked with Ross over these past few months, I feel like I have some insight to share about some things you probably don’t know.

So in my first column for The Athletic, I wanted to let you know about the most tenacious driver I’ve ever seen.

And I’m not talking about in the driver’s seat.

That awesome Daytona win last weekend? This is the inside story of the journey that got that ride put together.

Ross crept quietly into the NASCAR space and landed his first relevant, potential winning ride in 2013 driving for a guy you’ve probably heard of, Brad Keselowski.

Many drivers come and go, especially in the lower-tiered national touring series. Some drivers come up with enough money to literally run one race. Ross was able to overcome that hurdle and land himself a real opportunity to put his name on the map.

I could bore you with the details of that first season, but the reality is – and this is in his own words – there were two Truck races in 2013 he should have won, and he lost those to James Buescher and Erik Jones. And as a result, he was sent into one helluva spiral of struggles.

This is the point in the NASCAR world where we have to be honest with one another. “We” in this instance means I’m being honest with you, the reader. You ready?

Two things will get you a chance at winning rides in NASCAR nowadays – winning races when no one really thinks you can, or bringing along a checkbook that pays anywhere in the $3 million-plus range. Well, Ross doesn’t have that kinda checkbook and if he does, he certainly isn’t spending it on racing.

So now is when I’ll tell you how I met Ross Chastain. I flew to a farming conference in Anaheim, Calif. in March 2018. Clint Bowyer, who I spot for and often travel with, landed DeKalb as a sponsor and when I tell you – if there’s a guy that fits the blue-collar, hardworking, raise hell kinda guy that I know all farmers to be … well, that’s Clint Bowyer.

At the event, I met a lady named Nicole Phillips, the senior vice president/director of account management for Osborn Barr, a marketing agency out of St. Louis. Nicole quickly asked me, “Who are you and what do you do?” Well, I gotta be honest with you: That question typically gets on my nerves because I don’t want to talk about racing all damn night and I didn’t want her trying to qualify me as if I’m wearing a Swatch watch and trying to buy a damn Ferrari.

But I told her the truth. I manage Elliott Sadler and have done so since 1999. I co-own a marketing agency with Dale Jarrett and I spot for three drivers in NASCAR: Myatt Snider, Sadler and Bowyer.

Her response? “Elliott Sadler just ranked very high in some research we ran and I would love to share it with you and see if there are some opportunities with him.”

But Elliott had wanted to retire. He’s done. He never wants to run another restrictor-plate race again, despite how damn good we were at it. He wants to go home, coach baseball and play with his kids. But he’s another blue-collar, hardworking guy who also loves farming. Elliott owns over 10,000 acres (not all outright) in southeastern Virginia. He hunts on all of it and farms what he can.

Here’s where this whole opportunity ultimately happened for me to meet Ross and for Ross to probably wonder, How in the hell is this all happening for Brett to bring me the best sponsor I could ever ask for in an agriculture-based sponsor?

Nicole pitched Elliott to two companies: Mahindra and Nutrien Ag Solutions. Nutrien Ag Solutions said, “Let’s do a hunting trip sweepstakes at Elliott’s property in Virginia.” So they did.

They are the largest ag retailer in the U.S. I don’t know much, but I know that’s a big deal.

Anyway, the engagement was awesome. Who doesn’t wanna go hunt, ride around with Elliott Sadler, sleep in his big ass lodge and drink Crown and SunDrop all night? Hell, I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I still can’t wait to go back.

I’ll make the rest of this story short. Elliott stole their hearts during the sweepstakes. They wanted more to do with NASCAR – to the tune of four Xfinity races.

But Elliott is retired, or at least semi-retired. He only wanted to run two. But he likes Ross, so Elliott said in his country Virginia accent which sounds more like Louisiana, “Hey. Ross is our guy. I want to help him. Call Ganassi and see if we can partner with them for a couple races and let Ross run the other two.”

Well, that sounded like a great idea. So I did and called Ganassi COO Doug Duchardt. I’ve never met Doug and still haven’t. Then I called Ross. I hadn’t met Ross at the time, either. Ross farms watermelons, and I mean a crap ton of watermelons. Watermelon farmers need agriculture services. So it all makes sense. This was too easy.

We all chatted and I had a deal worked out. Nicole then led the effort for Nutrien Ag Solutions to sponsor Elliott and Ross at Chip Ganassi Racing. Freaking brilliant.

Ross had just won a race in Ganassi’s equipment and all of the Nutrien Ag Solutions decision-makers were at the race as Elliott’s guests. Ross had won stages in other races in their equipment. Ganassi liked the idea of having Elliott run an additional car at a few races. This was all coming together precisely.

Well, guess what? All hell broke loose. If you’re a NASCAR fan, you already know what’s coming next: DC Solar ruined the entire plan. After that company’s downfall in late 2018/early 2019, Duchardt called me and said they were going to have to close the Xfinity Series team Ross was scheduled to drive for full-time in 2019. The public announcement came very soon after. He gave me very little heads up compared to what the general public received, which I understand, because news travels super fast around here.

I called Ross, who already knew about the Ganassi team closing and was devastated. But that’s when I learned he’s the most tenacious person I’ve ever met in the sport that wears a helmet.

He didn’t give up. He didn’t waiver.

He said, “Let’s fight.” At this moment I still had not met Ross Chastain. In my mind, he was just this skinny dude that could drive the hell out of a race car.

Together we started to fight for the next step. I fought for him. I fought for me. I even fought for Elliott because he believed in Ross.

Ross had told me he needed to be in a Chevrolet, and we agreed RCR made a lot of sense. So I immediately called executive vice president Mike Dillon, but he said he wasn’t in a position at that time to accommodate our needs – the four Xfinity races (two with Elliott and two with Ross). He intended to run one full-time car with Tyler Reddick and that was it.

He suggested I call Chris Rice at Kaulig Racing. Ha! Chris and I had met 20 years ago, thanks to Elliott. Chris used to be Elliott’s late model crew chief and they were damn good together.

As soon as I got off the phone with Mike I called Chris, and he loved the idea of Elliott racing for them. He said he had an opportunity that would allow Elliott to run two races …

… but he and Ross had a history because of how Kaulig’s former driver, Blake Koch, and Ross had raced one another.

Yes, people hold grudges around here. And of course we have drama, because nothing is ever easy, right?

But now Ross and I were talking on the phone two to three times a day. I arranged for Ross and Chris to meet and they cleared the air fairly quickly. And then I finally got the chance to meet Ross. I’ll never forget Chris saying to me, “Man I feel like it’s easier to meet the President than it is to get with this guy.”

He was kinda right. But I’ll tell you this about Ross, if you ever get the chance to meet him. He’s gracious, kind, polite, but would bite the head off a tiger if he had to in order to survive. My favorite saying he has is, “I bring my friends to the racetrack.” That means he’s not here to be your buddy; he’s here to kick your ass. And he’s been handing out ass-kickings left and right lately.

Nutrien Ag Solutions, Kaulig Racing, Ross, Elliott and I were able to put together a scenario that allowed Ross to run three races (the Daytona season opener, Chicago and Texas) and allowed Elliott a chance to run two (Richmond and the second Las Vegas race).

Wait! Did you see that list? Ross wasn’t even scheduled to run the Xfinity Series race last week in Daytona?

That’s the race where he just led the most laps (49), won Stage 1, finished third in Stage 2 and went on to win the race! That was all Chris Rice and Matt Kaulig’s idea; that’s how much they believe in this young man.

Kaulig Racing realized Chastain could win races when no one else thought he could. Ganassi didn’t self-fund him. RCR wouldn’t take the risk. Ross’ phone didn’t ring when the world fell apart. In fact, his phone stopped ringing outside of teams and people he trusted. The NASCAR media requests stopped coming in, the Xfinity Series preseason production shoot calls stopped coming in. His prom date basically dumped him just as he rolled up in his limousine with the corsage in his hand.

But he didn’t quit. And not only did he not quit, he never stopped smiling or winning, either.

Here’s the bottom line: When drivers hold a pretty wheel and are an ideal brand ambassador, sponsors make their world go round. In this case, Nutrien Ag Solutions, who originally came on to sponsor Ross for two races this season, may have just saved the day – or in this case, saved Ross’ career.

They believed in him enough to add Talladega and Kansas. Kaulig Racing believed in him enough to add Daytona.

My speculation is you’ll see Ross in at least two additional races this year in Kaulig equipment. Personally, I hope Bristol is one of them. And, personally, I hope I’m around to spot him in that race as well.

Why wouldn’t I? He’s setting the world on fire!
 
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