Get to know Ross Chastain, NASCAR’s watermelon farmer driver
Chip Ganassi Racing made a long-awaited announcement Monday morning in which the team named Ross Chastain as the driver of its No. 42 Chevrolet for the 2021 season.
The move wasn’t totally out of left field since Chastain’s had a relationship with the Ganassi organization since 2018, in which he earned the pole position, won a race and finished in second place in the three Xfinity events he ran for CGR that year.
Still, the 27-year-old has just five wins in NASCAR’s lower level series and beat out other full-time Cup drivers for the coveted 42 seat, which was also offered to Bubba Wallace this year before Wallace announced he would depart his Richard Petty Motorsports team after the 2020 season.
Chastain, who races full-time for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series, said he knows he has big shoes to fill as Ganassi’s replacement for top Cup drivers Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth.
“Of course I’m nervous,” Chastain said. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”
The eighth generation watermelon farmer will have new teammates to lean on for the transition, though. Chastain said he plans to tap on the knowledge of championship drivers and CGR teammate Kurt Busch in the No. 1 Cup car and Jimmie Johnson, who will run IndyCar races for the organization next season.
Chastain even received an unexpected text from Johnson this morning: “He said, ‘Hey man, congratulations! I guess this means we’re teammates.”
Chastain spoke with The Observer on the afternoon of the biggest news in his NASCAR career about smashing watermelons in Victory Lane, texting Johnson and how he plans to juggle making an Xfinity championship run while preparing to launch in the Cup Series as NASCAR’s next No. 42 driver.
Alex Andrejev: Big news for you today. Did you go into the shop at all or have you been taking calls at home?
Ross Chastain: No, just saving up my time there for hopefully when it’s all a little more normal.
AA: That makes sense. You were asked after the Xfinity race Friday if you would accept a ride for Ganassi, and you said, ‘Of course.’ Did you
know at the time those would be your plans?
RC: No, I didn’t. It came together quickly and very recently. I knew that I wanted it. Like I said after the race, ‘Of course.’ I think every Xfinity driver and a lot of Cup drivers, a lot of people in this world, would give a lot to sign with a guy like Chip and the team he’s built, and Chip has been good to me since I first came into the team in 2018.
AA: How did you learn you were getting the ride and what was your initial reaction?
RC: I was speechless. It was a simple call from Chip (over the weekend). He called and obviously I had his number stored and we exchanged hellos and he said, ‘I want you to drive my 42 car.’ And I said, ‘Chip, I want to drive it.’ I did go to the shop to sure up a few things, but he got it all done in a few short minutes.
RC: There’s a lot that is still being figured out. The main thing was that Chip Ganassi Racing and Ross Chastain wanted to work together, so we wanted to tell the world that we are working together, and beyond that, the sales team at Ganassi and me as well, we’ll go out and try to work with as many partners as we can, but no plans right now of what, who or how.
AA: One of the reasons I’m asking that is because a lot of fans associate you with your Watermelon scheme in the Truck Series. Is there any possibility we’ll see a watermelon paint scheme on the 42 car next year?
RC: I would love it. I was fortunate to drive a watermelon car with AdventHealth for the Daytona 500 and the Coke 600 in No. 77 car, which was a partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing and Spire Motorsports. The bottom of the car was a watermelon design, so anytime we can incorporate watermelons into something ... I fully embrace, obviously, my family, our history and what puts food on our table, and that’s watermelons. We’re getting our fields ready for the spring. I’ve got an uncle and cousins that have watermelon plants in the ground right now. Just to give you a little backstory, my brother was up all night with my uncle and cousin at the field in South Florida last night. There was a really bad little tropical depression that kind of popped up and swirled over our farm and just about drowned out the fall watermelon, so they were up all night digging ditches and trying to keep water out of the field. We have like a perimeter of dirt, a dike, and it busted and water came in. It was a long night for them, so anytime I can work with and put agriculture and watermelons on something, I’m definitely all for it.
AA: You worked on that farm growing up, right?
RC: That’s right. My brother and I are eightgeneration watermelon farmers. I live in the Charlotte-area for NASCAR, but my family is all in South Florida. The Chastains have farmed for 12 generations. It’s all that we’ve ever known. My dad’s grown other vegetables and tried (growing) citrus, tried an orange grove, and then hit on watermelons again, which is what the family had always done. So the family has just dug into watermelons for a long time and we’re proud of it. It’s kind of our little niche in the agriculture world. There are other farmers that are bigger than us and grow more, sell more, do more, but we do a lot and are proud of what we do.
AA: So you have this tradition of smashing a watermelon in Victory Lane when you win a race and I’ve always wondered, like, do you just carry a watermelon around the track with you?
RC: It depends. I’m not perfect. It’s been a little all over the place, but I was really fortunate for the Fourth of July Xfinity race we won last year at Daytona at my home track. My brother has a single engine pilot’s license and he was working for a farmer over in South Georgia, and he borrowed the farmer’s plane, flew over to Daytona the day of the Friday race and brought in one watermelon just to have (to smash), and if not, then to have to eat. That was the one I was able to smash on the frontstretch, and it meant a lot with how cool it was that my 20-year-old brother flies a plane over, and the farmer let him have the afternoon and the next day off. But sometimes I stop at a grocery store. When I’m out west in Phoenix, California, Texas, I don’t know people out there, so yeah, I just stop by the grocery store on the way to the track and carry it into the garage. It’s something that people know why I’m bringing one in, right? They know it’s for when we win, so I’m proud of it. My guys get fired up. They see me walk in with a watermelon and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah. That’s right.’ So it’s really a good morale boost for all of us.
AA: *Laughing* OK, that’s great. Transitioning away from watermelons, though, you’re a staple in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Do you plan to keep running events in those series or will your focus be Cup next year?
RC: Definitely the focus is the 42 car. I realize what I’m up against. I realize that not only is there the physical side of these Cup races being longer, being tougher to drive, but mentally as well. I’m still working on controlling my emotions. I can’t hide from it, right? I’m 27 years old. I still have a long way to go when it comes to handling my emotions and really being where I want to be inside my head, let alone what I show on T.V. or publicly on social media, whatever it is. Josh Wise is somebody I work with at Ford Racing. He was a former driver and is a driving coach ... So we’ll just talk. Like I talked with him last night as this (news) was getting ready to come out about how to stay focused. I have an Xfinity race this weekend to go win, and a playoff run to make in our Xfinity car. This is the biggest opportunity by far. It’s the Cup Series. It’s Chip Ganassi Racing. How do I balance this? And we’ll just talk through it and look at the positives and we also look at the negatives. There’s definitely a balance to be had for the rest of this year. I lean on Josh a lot for that and that’ll tie in with how many Xfinity and Truck races I do. The focus is definitely on the 42 car, but I’m not saying no, because I definitely see the value. I think in 2019 I ran somewhere around 77 races across NASCAR’s top three series. Let’s just say I’m not going to do that.
AA: Do you know who will be your crew chief next year? Will (No. 42 crew chief) Phil Surgen stick around?
RC: I don’t know for sure. I’m the driver. There are a lot of smart people at Chip Ganassi Racing to figure out all the details now and guide me, but I know that 42 team is capable. I do know Phil a little bit. I know a lot of the guys. I’ve worked with the pit crews at the 42 car when I drove there in 2018 and both Chip Ganassi Racing pit crews also pit for Kaulig Racing this year in the Xfinity series. So the way it worked out is I have one (CGR) crew this year on the No. 10 car and the (other CGR pit) team is on the No. 11 car. But I worked with the 42 team two years ago for those three races, and I’ve actually worked with the jackman on the 42 car back in 2012 when I started in the Truck Series full-time, so it’s definitely a lot of familiar faces.
AA: It’s obviously an organization you’re comfortable with, but the Cup Series full-time is a big step up. Where’s your head at in terms of being “that guy” for the 42. Are you nervous?
RC: Of course I’m nervous. I’m not gonna lie to you. But one of the best things about this is that it is September 21st and we go to Daytona in February. For better or worse, I have time to think about it and time to plan. I know it won’t all go according to plan, but it’s not like we’re doing this and just jumping in tomorrow. I can watch Matt (Kenseth). I can watch how this group works together. Matt Kenseth is one of the best race car drivers that’s ever ever been in the sport. We know his wealth of knowledge, so I’ll pick that. I’ll be teammates with Kurt Busch, a champion in this sport who’s done so many things. It’s hard to wrap my head around that I have these guys to lean on. And then I get a text from probably the last person I thought: Jimmie Johnson is now a teammate as well. He’s going to be running one of Chip’s IndyCars next year on the street courses on the road courses. He texts me like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re teammates now.’ Like, holy cow! You’ve got guys over there like Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who are just incredible idols of mine even though it’s IndyCar and a lot of NASCAR people might not pay attention. They are race car drivers, so I’ll lean on those guys. I’ll probably bug them, but it’s something that I’m looking forward to just immersing myself as far into this thing. But yes, I’m nervous. There’s no doubt about it.
AA: What exactly did Jimmie’s text say? Was it just a congratulations thing?
RC: Yeah, he said, ‘Hey man, congratulations! I guess this means we’re teammates.’ He was one of the first ones to fire it off whenever it came out this morning.
AA: Sounds like you’ll have some solid resources. Is there anything I missed?
RC: I truly am just a watermelon farmer. That was the quote from our first win together (with CGR) in 2018. But I’ve gone so much farther in the sport than I ever thought and it makes all this so much sweeter. It’s what I wanted, but I just never knew and expected it to truly come through like this. So I’ll just keep working, same thing we’ve been doing. I’ve got a great group in and around me. I’m just a watermelon farmer and now I get to go drive Chip Ganassi’s 42 car in the Cup series. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Ross Chastain celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Truck Series auto race in Newton, Iowa, in 2019. Chastain will drive the No. 42 car next season.
Ross Chastain is introduced to the crowd before the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race Sept. 18 in Bristol, Tenn.