NASCAR notebook: Ross Chastain the runner-up in first Champ 4 appearance

AVONDALE, Ariz. — After a season of career-firsts — a maiden victory and a dramatic lap to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race — Ross Chastain insisted he felt more hopeful than disappointed after coming up short of hoisting his first major racing trophy on Sunday.

Chastain’s No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet finished third in the Phoenix Raceway season finale — 1.2-seconds behind the winner, and newly-crowed 2022 series champion Joey Logano. After moving forward from a 25th-place starting spot on the grid and competing inside the top five for most of the final laps, Chastain felt confident that he and the two-year-old Trackhouse Racing team had done all it could. And, if nothing else, set the stage for future championship runs.

“The emotions are surprisingly good,” said Chastain, who earned his first two NASCAR Cup Series wins this season (at the Circuit of The Americas road course and at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

“I’m not sad, I’m not upset. … I actually can’t believe how good I feel. I’m so proud and so happy to get this first shot in the championship,” he added.

The other two championship-eligible drivers, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott finished 10th and 28th, respectively — both having to overcome different challenges on Sunday

Bell and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization received heart-breaking news in the hours immediately before the race that Coy Gibbs — the team’s Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer — and son of team founder Joe Gibbs — had passed away the night before at the age of 49.

Bell said the team met and decided it should still race on Sunday. And he ran among the top-10 for much of the day, despite the tough circumstances.

“That was an experience unlike I’ve ever gone through in my entire life,” Bell said. ‘In that moment, you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. If you should get in the race car and race or you shouldn’t race. Myself, Denny (Hamlin) and the other JGR drivers were all in the same boat, we didn’t know what to do.

“(JGR President) Dave Alpern actually came back to the race track right before driver intros and told us, ‘you need to go out there and race’ and that’s what we did.

“Definitely just an incredible twist of emotion and a perspective change for sure. You think that this is the big picture then you get news like this and realize it’s the small picture in the grand scheme of things.”

Elliott, who won the Regular Season Championship, also spent time at the front of the field, but contact between his and Chastain’s Chevrolets on a re-start with a little more than 100 laps remaining sent his Chevrolet spinning into the wall. The team worked on the car, but Elliot ultimately finished the race two laps down.

“I’m not sure, I’m not sure,” Elliott repeatedly answered when asked about the incident with him and Chastain. “Looking forward to the offseason and really proud of our team for the fight we put in today. Like we just kind of peaked right before we crashed, got our car driving pretty good, just had our best pit stop of the day so that was all solid, and we were right there next to the 22 (Logano).

“Thought we had a shot at it all the way up until we didn’t.”

For both Chastain and Bell, 2022 marked the best NASCAR Cup Series season of their careers statistically. It was the first Championship 4 appearance for both, as well.

Chastain, 29, of Alva, Florida, spent 19 weeks ranked among the top three in the championship standings, earned his first two NASCAR Cup Series wins and more than doubled his previous single season marks for top-five (15) and top-10 (21) finishes.

Bell, 27, of Norman, Oklahoma, scored three wins and career highs in top-five (12) and top-10 (20) finishes.

Elliott, 26, of Dawsonville, Ga., tied his career best mark in wins (five) and earned 12 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. His three pole positions were most in his seven fulltime seasons.

Thoughts and prayers with JGR following Coy Gibbs passing

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Coy Gibbs — son of NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Joe Gibbs — passed away Saturday night at his hotel in Phoenix.

“It is with great sorrow that Joe Gibbs Racing confirms that Coy Gibbs (co-owner) went to be with the Lord in his sleep last night. The family appreciates all the thoughts and prayers and asks for privacy at this time.” — the team said in a statement released in the moments before Sunday’s green flag.

Word of the loss spread quickly throughout the Phoenix facility and a moment of silence was held in Gibbs honor just prior to the green flag. Gibbs was only 49 years old, the same age his older brother JD Gibbs was when he passed away in 2019.

“We are heartbroken by the tragic loss of Coy Gibbs. On behalf of the France Family and all of NASCAR, I extend my deepest condolences to Joe, Pat, Heather, The Gibbs family and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing on the loss of Coy, a true friend and racer,” NASCAR Chairman Jim France said.

Kyle Busch, who drove 15 years for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization was visibly upset on the grid just before the race start.

“Words can’t describe this day. Today was already going to be tough enough but it’s even more gut wrenching now. Heartbroken.” He posted on Twitter just before the race.

Coy Gibbs is the father of four and had just watched his oldest child, 20-year-old Ty Gibbs win the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship on Saturday night.

“I’m definitely proud of him,” Coy Gibbs said of Ty, “I’ve always got his back as his father.”

“Watching it today, just to see his determination,” Coy continued. “I think he’s got skills and he’s determined. It definitely made me proud. I think for my wife, we were both proud, just because he hammered down and did his job.”

Austin Cindric takes home Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors

Team Penske’s Austin Cindric started the 2022 year with a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 and he took the season’s final checkered flag on Sunday having earned the Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

Cindric, 24, has the Daytona 500 victory, earned five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes this season and advanced to the second round of the Playoffs.

He said securing that all-important early season victory allowed him to essentially learn the ropes of NASCAR’s major league as a rookie with the security of knowing he’d already earned a Playoff position.

“It does change the regular season in the fact I’m able to go through the regular season without the pressure of having to win a race as well as figure everything out,” Cindric said. “And that was probably more of an advantage than I gave it credit for, not having to put pressure on yourself, your team or have to be desperate.

“From that standpoint I think it was something made me be able to be patient or aggressive in areas I needed to be.”

Following Cindric in the rookie standings are fellow Ford drivers — Wood Brothers’ Harrison Burton and Front Row Motorsports’ Todd Gilliland. Burton’s best finish was a third place at the Indianapolis road course this summer. Gilliland’s top effort was a fourth place at the Indy road course.

End of an era for Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch’s seventh-place finish in Sunday’s championship finale marked his final race at Joe Gibbs Racing after a celebrated 15-year tenure that included two championships (2015 and 2019) and 56 of his career total 60 victories and finished in the top-10 in the championship 11 of his 15 seasons with the team.

He finished seventh in his final outing with JGR on Sunday — driving a No. 18 Toyota whose paint job included images of his time celebrating all the success he shared with the team over the course of his tenure.

Busch has signed to drive the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing beginning in 2023.

“It’s been a long road and I owe a lot of my success to Toyota Racing. I wouldn’t be where I am today without your support through the years. You guys will always be family to me, but I look forward to seeing you in my rearview come Daytona next year.”

Playlist