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NASCAR Cup Martinsville II

Hail Ross! But should NASCAR ban Chastain’s wild last-corner move in future?

OPINION: Perhaps this was NASCAR’s greatest-ever Hail Mary – but will Ross Chastain’s last-corner charge into the Playoffs be allowed to ever happen again?

Part inspiration, part insanity: If you haven’t seen it already, Ross Chastain didn’t lift off, didn’t even brake for Turn 3 on the final lap of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Martinsville but instead kept his throttle foot nailed to the boards and actually changed up to fifth gear – traditionally never used at NASCAR’s tightest track.

Chastain deliberately drove into the SAFER barrier to rim-ride the turn as fast as he possibly could, and in doing so made the cut for the Championship Four finale this weekend in Phoenix. In fact, it made Cole Trickle going low, instead of high, to pass Russ Wheeler in Days of Thunder look pretty lame.

The true brilliance of Chastain’s move was its total commitment, inspired by a video game he used to play with his brother on a Nintendo GameCube in 2005. Yes, he was helped by the toughness of NASCAR’s Next Gen car – all the wheels were still pointing in the right direction at the finish when previous bodies would likely have crumpled – but the overspeed he needed to gain those five spots was considerable.

One thing to think about doing it, quite another to pull it off successfully. To appreciate its utter craziness, here is the onboard (you can hear him upshift just before impact):

And here’s the moment captured by a Chastain fan, Caleb Matthew, in the grandstand that gives a full panorama of the drama:

 

The physics of the move

It’s been reported that data pulled from Chastain’s beaten-but-unbowed car showed a top speed that was up to 50mph faster than on a regular lap – he bounced off the wall for a full four seconds – and his momentum was such that he still had the overspeed to ram into the back of Brad Keselowski before the finish line.

Chastain’s 18.845-second final lap was faster than Kyle Larson’s pole-winning time and also eclipsed the previous track record held by Joey Logano, set in March 2014, at 18.898s. The fastest lap of the race until then was 20.508s, set by Kyle Larson on Lap 7 of the 500.

The next revelation was provided by Mike Wheeler, the 23XI Racing director of competition, who worked out that Chastain pulled about 5g as he rattled around the wall, and showed his workings in this tweet:

 

Opinion between drivers was split in the aftermath. The majority, even Kevin Harvick – who tends to keep his praise to himself – were impressed that Chastain had gone for and executed the move:

 

But others, notably Larson – who tried a similar maneuver to pass Denny Hamlin at Darlington’s Southern 500 in 2021 – labelled it “embarrassing” and, to be fair, admits now he wished he hadn’t tried his move.

Logano added: “Now the box is open, right? This wall riding is going to be a play. That’s not good.

“I mean, it was awesome, it was cool. It happened for the first time, there’s no rule against it.”

Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Worldwide Express Chevrolet Camaro

Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Worldwide Express Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

What was going through his mind?

Best let Chastain explain this one himself: “I never thought about it. Our prep this week, it never crossed my mind. I've done a lot of sim work this week, a lot of stuff, laps here virtually. Never once did it cross my mind to ever try it. I want to make that clear.

“The last time would have been a long time ago before I was even thinking about being a NASCAR driver. It flashed back in my head on the white flag, and I double-checked off of [Turn] 2. Like, through 1 and 2 I thought, 'I think we need two spots.' They said, ‘Yes’. If it wrecks, OK, we don't make it. It might not work, but I'll try it.

“I didn't know how it would all work out. I didn't know if the physics would work to make it around the corner, but it did.”

Was it instinct? Was it a blind panic? What did it feel like? What questions was he asking himself inside the car?

“My brain could not comprehend, my bandwidth was shot when I entered Turn 3 and I grabbed fifth gear,” he said. “Everything went blurry. I couldn't comprehend it. 

“But, yeah, I questioned it. When I grabbed fifth, I was like, 'Well, it's going now.' My foot stayed down. I committed to the wall early. It didn't slow down, so it worked.”

Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro launches his car into the wall to speed around Turn 4 to pass Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Direct Toyota Camry

Ross Chastain, TrackHouse Racing, Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro launches his car into the wall to speed around Turn 4 to pass Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx Freight Direct Toyota Camry

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

So what happens next?

One thing’s for sure, NASCAR won’t ignore this. With Pandora’s Box now opened, as Logano rightly says, drivers and crew chiefs will be checking out circuits where this could feasibly be repeated, starting with this weekend’s finale in Phoenix.

It was one thing to do this at the shortest and slowest track(barring the pre-season LA Coliseum event) on the NASCAR Cup schedule so it should be less effective on faster tracks, although Larson proved its effectiveness at Darlington. But imagine if a Championship Four driver pulls off a similar stunt at Turn 2 – the last braking zone – on the final lap at Phoenix to win the title?

Trust me, the physics engine of the Cup Series teams’ racing simulators at base will be working overtime this week – but do all SAFER walls react the same way? Chastain’s new track record lap gained almost two seconds on third-placed Ryan Blaney at Martinsville.

I tasked our resident sim racing whizz Nick DeGroot to first replicate Chastain’s Martinsville move on Monday, in which he managed to achieve an 18.828s at the fifth attempt, and then asked him to try doing it at Phoenix too…

He reported: “It’s not as pronounced and more difficult to do because of the way the wall juts out, but it’s possible… Gains a few tenths, maybe half a second if done right.”

And what of safety? The only second-thought Chastain had mid-move at Martinsville was that the track gate might fail – Mike Harmon and Michael Waltrip both survived two of the most brutal crashes at Bristol when that happened in genuine accidents.

“Halfway through the corner I saw [the gate], and I had not thought about that,” he admitted. “I did see it when I was in the middle of the corner, but it was too late. Testament to the wall.”

Will the SAFER walls stand up to repeated abuse if everyone tries to gain spots like this on the final lap? And who foots the bill for the track damage if that happens?

Although I say ‘NASCAR won’t ignore this’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it will do anything about it! Doing nothing would certainly risk some potentially farcical situations being played out, but… It’s actually quite a difficult rule to write if you think about it – as how would you word what is essentially a ‘intentional barrier charge?’

I guess you could set a time limit about rubbing the fence, a little like they do with locked-in tandem drafting at superspeedways in some series? Perhaps the best way would simply be objective and call it an illegal ‘offensive charge’ like you get in basketball?

Or treat it like inverting the rule regarding going below the yellow line on a superspeedway – you can’t pass someone if you’re running against the wall on the final lap, unless you’re being pushed into doing so… Can you believe we’re having a track limits debate about a wall-lined oval track?!?

However, the Chastain clip was being played on repeat across all the American sports news shows and around the world on social media, amplifying the anticipation for this weekend’s showdown in Arizona. Heck, even two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso tweeted it was “the best thing of 2022 in motor racing!”

The night before, the buzz was all about Ty Gibbs wrecking Brandon Jones out of the Xfinity Series Playoffs on the final lap. NASCAR is about show as well as sport, with perhaps more emphasis on the former than in any other form of elite motorsports, and chose to turn a blind eye to that one.

Maybe this will simply become a regular aspect of its ‘overtime’ jeopardy…

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