Ross Chastain’s NASCAR’s Cup Win at COTA Made a Watermelon Fly

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the new Next Gen car that NASCAR is so proud of continues to be as good as advertised.

And at the same time, popular young watermelon farmer Ross Chastain seems to be as good as advertised, as well.

After three consecutive podium finishes—a third and two seconds—Chastain drove masterfully to get his first Cup Series victory on Sunday at Circuit of the Americans in Austin, Texas. With the hard-fought victory in the 69-lap overtime race, the Florida native became NASCAR’s third first-time winner in its first six races. Earlier this year, Austin Cindric won at Daytona Beach and Chase Briscoe won at Phoenix.

First Ross Chastain won his first NASCAR Cup race. Then, he smashed a watermelon in victory lane and sampled the debris during his postrace interview.

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After leading much of the day, Chastain looked like a comfortable winner until a series of late-race cautions and restarts muddled everything. Chastain, Bowman, and A.J. Allmendinger fought wildly for the lead on the restart after the day’s ninth and last caution. They beat on each other, drove each other off the asphalt, swapped the lead three times, and generally put on the best two-lap finish since—well, since last weekend at Atlanta.

Chastain went from third to first when he and Bowman got together on the next-to-last lap, giving Allmendinger the point. But when Bowman tried to wrest the lead from Allmendinger, he knocked Allmendinger aside and thus opened the door for Chastain to successfully make a three-wide pass for the final lead change.

Bowman finish second, then Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, and Tyler Reddick. Allmendinger couldn’t finish the last lap and was scored 33rd, a lap down. After leading much of the first stage and looking as good as he ever has, second-starting Daniel Suarez led 15 times before a flat tire left him 24th. Eighth-place Cindric was the only other driver to lead more than a few laps, pacing for the field for 11.

The race was further proof that the Next Gen car can take—and withstand—far more contact that previous models. A half-dozen or more drivers spent time leaning on each other, driving through the gravel, checking out the grassy aprons, and bouncing over the cubs without noticeable damage. In similar road course races, parts and pieces might have been scattered around the circuit.

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Ross Chastain rolls toward the checkered flag at Circuit of the Americas.

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Before Sunday, Chastain had made 120 career Cup starts with Jay Robinson, Spire Racing, Roush Fenway, and Chip Ganassi before going this year with Trackhouse when it bought out Ganassi’s stock car operation. Chastain went into COTA with no career victories, just three lifetime top-5 finishes, and 9 top-10s in those 120 starts and 9 top-10s.

NASCAR’s next races are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Richmond, Va. Modifieds will have a 99-lapper on Friday, Xfinity will go for 250 laps on Saturday, and the Cup Series has a 400-lapper on Sunday.

Smith Steals One at COTA

Ford driver Zane Smith went from fourth to first on the next-to-last lap to win Saturday afternoon’s 42-lap, 143-mile Camping World Truck Series race in Austin. Driving for owner Bob Jenkins, it was Smith’s fifth career CWTS victory and his second this year after the season-opener in Daytona Beach.

He won ahead of John Hunter Nemechek, Kyle Busch, Ben Rhodes, and Chandler Smith. Busch dominated, leading three times 31 of the 42 laps, but was involved in a late-race incident that put Zane Smith in the lead for laps 45-46. (All told, the winner led three times for 11 laps).

Busch led on the start of the final of two overtime restarts, but challengers Stewart Friesen and Alex Bowman created a three-wide situation in Turn 11. All three banged together and slid high, opening the bottom for Zane Smith to drive through.

‘Dinger Rules in Xfinity

In another “man vs. boys” display, A.J. Allmendinger easily won the Saturday afternoon Xfinity Series race at COTA. He led 27 of the 46 in handling Austin Hill (second for the second consecutive weekend), Cole Custer, Noah Gragson, and Sam Mayer. The winning margin of victory was more than 2.0 seconds.

Seen as something of a road course ringer, Allmendinger now has 11 Xfinity victories in 66 starts, seven of them on road courses. In addition, both of his Cup Series victories have come on road courses, at Watkins Glen and Indianapolis. He seemed on the verge of perhaps winning Sunday’s Cup race at COTA before crashing in a last-lap, last-turn incident with winner Ross Chastain and second-place Alex Bowman.

Changes at the Top at Richmond

Longtime NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. figure Dennis Bickmeier has resigned as president of Richmond (Va.) Raceway to become executive director of a new sports and entertainment authority in nearby Henrico County, Va. As the new organization’s first leader, he’ll manage all county facilities, including a 17,000-seat arena and a 180,000-square-foot indoor sports and convocation center.

Bickmeier became RR’s president in 2011, reigning over the ¾-mile, D-shaped speedway that hosts NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity, and Camping World series. He’ll leave his post in the next week or so, soon after the speedway’s Modified Xfinity, and Cup tripleheader on April 1-2-3. A replacement has not been announced.

Before coming to Richmond, Bickmeier had management stints at Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in California. He also worked for the Big West Conference, the NFL’s LA Rams, MLB’s Los Angeles Angels, and the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks before joining NASCAR in 1999.

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