DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Ross Chastain always has watermelons around victory lane, a nod to his roots in the family fruit farming business.
He may not spend much time on the Florida farm these days, but with good reason — the eighth-generation watermelon farmer was a 10th-place finisher in the Daytona 500. Chastain was part of a bumper crop of Daytona 500 rookies that made stout runs down the stretch in a "The Great American Race" won by Denny Hamlin.
Chastain finished 10th Sunday and completed a weekend sweep of survival by dodging wreckage to finish all three NASCAR races without much more than a few scrapes. He was third in the Truck Series and 13th in the Xfinity Series race to go 438 for 438 in total laps.
"It's luck, for sure," Chastain said. "I said this morning, we're going to use all our luck up this weekend. I might come back here for five years and crash. You just don't know."
Chastain's entire ride to Daytona was full of luck, some of it bad. He lost his ride for Chip Ganassi Racing's Xfinity team following an FBI raid on the program's primary sponsor, DC Solar. He has patched together a deal to race this season for an Xfinity title and is scheduled to race a full Cup ride in the No. 15 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports. Chastain drove in 34 races last season for Premium — but not Daytona.
The watermelon farmer-turned-racer wanted to persuade owner Jay Robinson to drive all 36 races this season.
"If we get way behind on our budget and we tear up a bunch of stuff and get below our bottom line, then you do what you've got to do," Chastain said. "I'll use this to my advantage as much as I can."
The 26-year-old Chastain put on a heck of a show in Daytona and kept his Chevy out of danger most of the night. He said the nerves hit a few times during the wreck fest and slid his tires a few times to avoid a big hit.
He won over some fans, and impressed his boss.
"I'd like to think that's why I was in the car, right? That's why Jay Robinson kept me in it," Chastain said. "He had offers for other people to put in it but he said he really thought if he kept me in it, he would make his money back."
Chastain was one of eight Daytona 500 rookies in the field — and one of two in the top 10. Ryan Preece, who built his resume on the modified circuit, was eighth in the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing.
"A lot of you guys might not know me," Preece said, "but I'm from a racing background."
Preece is an established racer in the Northeast with 22 victories in NASCAR's Whelen Modified Tour. He won the series championship in 2013 and was part of NASCAR's developmental class of future stars in 2013 and 2014.
He made a name for himself in NASCAR's Cup series at Daytona.
"How could you be upset with a top 10 and my first Daytona finish in my first Daytona 500," Preece asked.
Preece even gave fellow Connecticut driver Joey Logano a needed push late to send him to a fourth-place finish.
"We grew up racing quarter-midgets against each other in Connecticut and it just shows that dreams can really come true," Logano said. "I'm proud to be racing with him in the Daytona 500. I think that's super-cool."
Chastain leaves the heavy lifting on the watermelon farm to his dad and brother. He had impressed a sponsor with his work ethic and landed a career-changing ride with unexpected funding. Federal agents raided the sponsor right before Christmas, throwing Chastain's career into disarray. Chastain was able stay out of the watermelon field and stay in the Daytona 500 field.
"I'm in Charlotte just trying to hustle all this racing stuff," Chastain said.
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