Ross Chastain takes a moment to find the right words.
Chip Ganassi — his former employer — and Justin Marks — his current one, are different people from different eras at very different points in their life.
Chastain’s relationships with them reflect that.
When it came to Ganassi, who was 62 during Chastain’s lone Cup season driving for him, “uncomfortable conversations” had an impersonal touch.
“I don’t know, fortunately or unfortunately (they) were on the phone,” Chastain told SPEED SPORT Saturday morning after considering his answer. “In person it was … not in that same capacity (as with Marks), just the way it worked out.”
Added Chastain: “Chip is just in a different walk of life or aspect of his life. Justin is definitely there at the shop more. That’s the way he’s approaching it. So we see a little bit more of him. It’s year one of Trackhouse as we know it. So he’s there. He’s hands on.”
The week following a 29th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway last month, Marks, one of NASCAR’s youngest and most forward-thinking team owners at the age of 40, took his driver out for lunch.
Specifically, to Tacos 4 Life.
It’s one of the closest restaurants to Trackhouse Racing’s headquarters in Concord, North Carolina, in the building that was home to Chip Ganassi Racing until 2021.
Marks’ message to the 29-year-old Chastain after two disappointing results to start the season? “Dude, you’re fine, quit trying so hard.”
It’s a message that took. In the three races since the one-on-one taco summit, Chastain has earned three consecutive top-three finishes. He led a career-best 83 laps and finished third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He then finished second at Phoenix Raceway before bouncing back from an early incident at Atlanta Motor Speedway to finish second again.
Through five races, Chastain is the only Cup Series driver with three top-five finishes.
Hours after giving his measured response about the styles of Marks and Ganassi, Chastain gave a more confident description about life at Trackhouse Racing under Marks.
“As far as Trackhouse though … the breath of fresh air that is — it’s almost unmeasurable,” Chastain said in the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a lot of the same people. Justin being young — the way he’s come in. The way he see stuffs that he does in other aspects of his life, now we’re a part of that at Trackhouse with the Cup team. We’ve seen it, we’ve heard about it. We’ve heard about (co-owner) Pitbull. Now that we’re truly getting to see what it’s like to actually work with Justin, it’s incredible. There are a lot of smiles.”
There’s a lot to smile about when your team — including the No. 99 of Daniel Suarez — has five top fives and six top 10s to start the season.
Now the Cup Series heads to Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, where Chastain finished fourth in a torrential downpour last year for his first top-five finish in the Cup Series.
Chastain goes to Austin with three runner-up finishes to his name since last year.
How does it feel for Chastain to be on the precipice of his first Cup Series victory after 11 years working his way to this moment?
“It’s surreal, really,” Chastain told SPEED SPORT. “I still feel so fortunate just to be out here and to be competing. I don’t know that I have words right now. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment and experience it. It’s something that I’ll probably look back on and realize later how good it was. But right now we’re just competing and we’re obviously at the pointy end of the of the stick and everything in this sport is cyclical and it’ll go in a circle, right pun intended. But right now we’re at the pointy end and trying to try to stay here.”
The person holding that stick is Marks, who bought Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR assets last year.
Marks, a former NASCAR driver himself, discussed the team’s progress and his philosophy for running it Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
When told that the numbers put up by Chastain and Suarez were only topped by those produced at Hendrick Motorsports (winner of three of five races), Marks shared that “makes the hair stand up on my arms.”
“I’m speechless,” Marks continued. “It’s a testament to everybody at Trackhouse and to our approach to this car and how we’re building the culture in this company and the belief that we can. Everybody’s bought into that and everybody’s done a great job of what their roles and responsibilities are and to see that commitment and that hard work play out at the end of Sunday is it’s very empowering for everybody in the company.”
Marks credited the Next Gen car for making Trackhouse’s early-season surge possible.
His style when it comes to leadership — including an occasional pep talk over tacos — can help in areas a new car can’t.
“I came in with Trackhouse going well, ‘I don’t have $100 million that I can throw against R&D and engineering programs,'” Marks said. “But what I do believe I can do a good job of is build and cultivate a workforce of people that are empowered and talented and let them use their talent and let them use their opportunity, and give them the support, accountability and everything that they need to excel and if I do a good job of that, that’s something like this that’s happening right now with Trackhouse is possible. And I would say that probably not would not have been the case with with the old car.”