CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — This was supposed to be the breakout year for Ross Chastain, whose hard work caught the eye of a sponsor who promised to fund the eighth-generation watermelon farmer in the best ride of his career.
Chastain was moving up to a competitive car in the Xfinity Series with a true chance to compete for the championship in NASCAR's second-tier series.
Then the sponsor was raided in December by the federal government and the deal vanished. Chip Ganassi had to shut down his Xfinity program and Chastain had less than two months to scrape together work for this season.
The saga didn't end there. He got a full Truck Series schedule with Niece Motorsports but declared in his NASCAR paperwork that he was racing for the championship in the Xfinity Series, all while trying to add elite Cup Series races to his schedule.
But when he won at Kansas Speedway in the seventh Truck Series race of the season, Chastain made the unprecedented decision to change course and register as a candidate for that championship.
"There were a lot of sleepless nights," Chastain said this week. "I made my own choice, the decision was mine, but it did start out of our control. I didn't make the first decision that set this in motion. There came a point in (Xfinity) where we just weren't going to be competitive. We just felt like we were getting punched in the nose over and over."
The swap to race for the championship in NASCAR's third-tier national series has turned out to be the best decision Chastain could make in this roller-coaster year. The 26-year-old Florida native is considered one of the favorites to win the title when the playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The eight-driver field is led by regular-season winner Grant Enfinger, reigning series champion Brett Moffitt, two-time series champion Matt Crafton and 2016 champion Johnny Sauter. It is rounded out by Stewart Friesen, winner of his first career race two weeks ago on the dirt at Eldora Speedway; Austin Hill, who in sponsorship gamesmanship got Moffitt's ride after Moffitt won the title; rookie Tyler Ankrum; and Chastain.
Ankrum missed the first three races of the season because he didn't turn 18 until March, but he earned a slot in the playoffs with a surprise victory at Kentucky. It's not lost on him how far he has come in 13 races at the national level.
"Honestly I didn't even have the confidence in myself to even win a stage," when he debuted," said Ankrum. "So the fact I am here now is surreal."
Chastain leads all playoff drivers with three wins this season. But his statistics are more complicated than the numbers indicate.
When he decided to run for the Truck Series title, he was starting at zero with no points and his Kansas victory did not count in qualifying for the postseason. But just two races later, he won at Iowa, only to become the first driver to be disqualified under NASCAR's zero tolerance policy on failing post-race inspection.
Chastain answered a week later with a victory at Gateway, and led all but six laps in a dominating win at Pocono.
Moffitt won the season finale last year to claim his first national title, and believes that will be how the title is decided again this year.
"Whoever wins Homestead is going to win the championship, if you make it that far, you are going to have to win that race," Moffitt said. "Ross, he's been fast all year and proven he can win and is getting it done."
Chastain welcomed Moffitt's assessment that Chastain just might be the early favorite to win the Truck Series' seven-race playoff series.
"Confidence is high," smiled Chastain. "Absolutely."