HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Ross Chastain is very comfortable at Waffle House.
That is where he is seated on a Tuesday morning, two days after finishing dead last at Talladega, which happened one week after finishing second at Texas, and only five days ahead of Sunday's NASCAR playoff 12-teams-to-eight cutoff event on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, where he will start the race sitting three positions and nine points on the wrong side of that elimination line. So close, but so much work to do.
Yet here the three-time Cup Series racer winner is, the maestro behind the Hail Melon maneuver at Martinsville Speedway one year ago that became a crossover social media sensation, calmly knocking down coffee, over-easy eggs, grits and a peanut-butter-smeared waffle. He's in a bright yellow booth that is sandwiched directly between an off-duty landscaping crew and four vacationing husbands who have chosen to sit across the restaurant from their wives. No one in the place, not the patrons, not the java-pouring server, not even the batter-splattered cook at the griddle, has any idea that there is a race car driver in their midst.
And not just any stock car racer but NASCAR's current lightning rod.
The guy who inspires as many boos as cheers. See: the seemingly 50/50 split of praise and ridicule that followed the Hail Melon (and a NASCAR rule change to prevent it from happening again), even after it cut through the NFL noise to put NASCAR on the media map and earned him a spot in 2022's Championship Four.
The guy whose name now comes up even when he isn't involved. See: a NASCAR on Fox Instagram post of Saturday's Truck Series fight between Matt Crafton and Nick Sanchez that produced nearly 900 comments. The top comment reads: "I don't know how but it was Chastain's fault."
The guy who can't seem to get through a month without eliciting barb-covered sound bites about him from the sport's biggest stars.
Martin Truex Jr. in August: "Get your s--- together."
Kyle Busch, same day: "I got Chastained."
Denny Hamlin on his podcast after a wreck with Chastain in March: "I think that Ross doesn't like it when I speak his name in the media and when I have this microphone. I told him I have a microphone and I'm going to call it like I see it. Until you get a microphone, you can then say whatever you want about me."
Sitting here in this Waffle House booth north of Charlotte, Ross Chastain is given that microphone. A chance to smother and cover the NASCAR world with a sharpened, witty response. Tape is rolling. The platform of the Worldwide Leader in Sports awaits.
But his reaction is the same now as it has been whenever he received similar "Here's a flamethrower" invitations from other outlets and shows. He shakes his head and smiles.
"I'm good, man. I've got too much work to do," the driver from Florida says to ESPN. "I don't know what a response to anything said about me is going to do. It would be easy, sure. It would be easy to fire back on Twitter or go on a radio show or podcast and respond to stuff that's been said about me, and I am sure that it would get a big response. A lot of clicks and likes and dislikes and whatever. For a few hours, maybe a day. But the next day, you know what? I would still have the same work to do, and now I'd be a day behind because I spent it doing all of that stuff that doesn't matter. The work matters."
He smiles again.
"The best response is in results, and the only way to achieve results is through hard work."
Chastain knows hard work. In fact, he has arrived here for late breakfast having already put in a day's worth of it. There's body work, which he has just done for a couple of hours on the basketball court under the eye of a former college coach. There's racing work, having already conferred with Josh Wise, former NASCAR competitor and USAC champion, who is now a driver development and performance adviser with Team Chevy, walking racers through their physical and mental preparation before each race.
By week's end Chastain will have also been coached up by everyone from crew chief Phil Surgen to Olympic speed skating legend Dan Jansen, a longtime Charlotte-area resident, who helps the racer dive even further into his physical and mental shape. All the while he is ingesting all the data he can possibly process from throughout 2023 as well as last year's Roval event, where he finished 37th. That won't be good enough this time around.
"It's a lot, but it's all right here," he says, thumping the cover of ... a leather-bound notebook? "I write everything down in here. I'm old-school like that."
Ross Chastain is old-school all the time. That's why he still loves Waffle House.
"Waffle House, or sausage, egg and cheese biscuit in the truck, or even a Snickers bar and a soda in the truck. That's breakfast, man," he says as he busts the yolk from the white. "I don't eat this as much as I used to, but I probably still eat it more than I should. I guarantee you my dad and brother still had one of those combos this morning on the way to work."
That would be down in Punta Gorda, where father Ralph and brother Chad, six years younger, still spend their days farming, managing thousands of acres in South Florida that produce more than 2,000 watermelons per acre. The work is grueling, hot and intense.
When Ralph started putting Ross to work as a kid, the problem was never getting his son to work, it was getting him to slow down. Whenever Ross was behind the wheel of one of the sawed-off school buses used to transport the melons or a tractor rigged to plow or grade land, the kid had his foot in the throttle, seeking to beat whoever was doing the same job a few rows over.
The Chastains, eighth-generation watermelon farmers, worked six days a week. On the seventh day, they rested. Ross slowed down only to park in front of the television to watch his hero Jeff Gordon battle rivals on the racetrack, beginning with Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace and then on to the next-gen likes of Busch and Kevin Harvick.
"Every step of my ladder wasn't supposed to happen," he recalls now. "When I was 12 and we started, we were just supposed to do some local racing in Florida and nothing else. Then we were like, 'You know what? Let's try the next level, just one race, just so we can say that we did it.' Then that turned into the next step and the next step and all along the way."
The watermelon industry, enamored with one of its own moving up the NASCAR ladder, started providing some financial help. That has been framed up by Chastain critics as a silver-spoon kid buying rides, but, spoiler alert, bringing sponsorship to help land gigs is the way of the motorsports world.
"There are plenty of guys with rich daddies backing up a truckload of cash that keeps the guy in that car even when he's clearly a total disaster," explained Stacy Compton, the former Cup Series racer and ESPN analyst, not long after giving Chastain his first ride in the NASCAR Truck Series in 2011, replacing just-departed Justin Marks. "Then there are the guys who have just enough to get themselves into a car for a race or two and they know if they are bad, the money's going to run out, the ride is going back to the shop and they all disappear forever. That guy, the second guy, you are never going to outwork that guy because he is literally racing for his racing life."
Chastain has raced for his racing life for so long that he doesn't know how else to go about it. Since that debut for Compton on July 29, 2011, he has made 493 starts across NASCAR's three national series, and at one point he set the record for most consecutive starts in all of those series to start a single season. It took him 66 tries spread out over nine years to finally earn the first of his four Truck Series wins, 132 tries over five seasons to grab the first of his three Xfinity Series wins and 121 starts spread out over six years before he shocked the world with the first of his three Cup Series wins, on the road course in Austin, Texas, on March 27, 2022.
"What people don't see, and this isn't unique to me, but they don't see the fighting to make it, is that you spend your time between those races not working on racing," Chastain says, sitting up straight over his untouched toast. "It's phone calls and sales calls and business meetings. That's what this notebook was full of then. And for every deal you get done, there are 10 times that many that don't. Or deals that do and then, for whatever reason, stuff beyond your control, they fall apart."
The Smash™️ pic.twitter.com/aBJ8e99Wgi— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 26, 2023
He says he felt an indescribable relief in 2021 when new boss Chip Ganassi told him to stop with all of that other stuff and just worry about racing. Then, at midseason, while at a test session, he learned that Ganassi had sold the team to Marks, the racer whose vacancy with Compton had given Chastain his big league break a decade earlier. Newly rebranded Trackhouse Racing was an unknown at best, and even after Chastain had been assured that he would still be with the team, switching from the No. 42 Chevy to the No. 1 in 2022, the arrival of NASCAR's one-size-fits-all Next Gen car was the biggest unknown of them all.
"When 2022 started, we knew we had a little bit of an edge and I could feel it as soon as we started unloading for practice at the racetrack every weekend," Chastain remembers now of the season when he won not once but twice, including the Hail Melon and his rise through the ranks, to the ire of those who characterized it as reckless. "I remember feeling this super-intense feeling of, 'Man, you'd better take advantage of this now because you don't know how long this is going to last.' So, yeah, as a driver, I attacked. If there was an opening, I was driving it in there. I was driving like I had better do it now because one day it might all go away. And that's how I felt."
It's a feeling straight from the farm. Watermelons are harvested only 100 days per year. Anyone who doesn't figure out how to get all they can out of those 100 days will spend the other 265 sifting through the want ads.
"This year, as the other teams have caught up to us, you have to change the way you approach the day," Chastain says. "When you don't have the fastest car every week, you can't be in attack mode all the time. You pick your spots. But when you are there, when the chance comes, you can't hesitate. If you do, someone else won't and it's gone."
Chastain has only recently been introduced to the term "imposter syndrome," explained to him by his longtime girlfriend, Erika Anne Turner. The official definition, as written by the National Library of Medicine is "a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals." In other words, a fear of being exposed as a fraud, even among people whose accomplishments are many and indisputable.
In the NASCAR garage, a world full of rags-to-riches stories, it is a common refrain and feeling. Richard Childress, a high school dropout who has gone on to win six Cup Series titles as a team owner and made countless millions across multiple industries, speaks of recurring dreams that he is in his office when people rush in and begin taking everything away, telling him the jig is up and he has to go back to being homeless in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Childress says Dale Earnhardt confessed to having the same feelings.
It isn't a long psychological walk to understand that anyone who keeps that kind of feeling compartmentalized all the time would, like Chastain, employ every type of coach he can; take every ride he can every weekend, even if it doesn't pay; and spend his own money jetting to driving schools to drive Mazda Miatas around road courses, all in an effort to find the edge that will keep him not even up front but gainfully employed.
"I don't have any doubt that I should be here, but yes, there is always that feeling of not being here tomorrow," Chastain says in reaction to a discussion about Childress' and Earnhardt's fears. "I absolutely catch myself looking around on Sundays and thinking, 'Man, I am out here racing with Kevin Harvick! And Denny Hamlin! And Kyle Busch!' I can't believe it. It's the dream, the dream I had as a kid, and you don't want to wake up from it."
That dream, the one conjured up by the kid racing roofless school buses full of watermelons through the fields of Punta Gorda, did not include being called out publicly by those same drivers, but that's the reality of life as the Melon Man. A student of NASCAR history, he also knows he is in good company. Harvick, Hamlin, Busch, Brad Keselowski and even Gordon, they all spent their formative Cup Series days having to race amid scoldings from their elders and contemporaries. In a way, it's the ultimate compliment, no matter how much it might hurt.
Sometimes, they even turn into actual compliments. Just last week, Hamlin said of Chastain's current NASCAR playoffs effort: "The dude keeps making chicken salad out of chicken s---, most weeks. I mean, he does. Not saying his car is chicken s---, but where [Trackhouse] is at, he's optimizing his day 95% of the time."
Chastain knows it all. He reads it all. He is aware of when he has won over the legends and he is aware of when he has pissed them off. He also knows he is perfectly capable of defending himself. We all do. Just ask Noah Gragson.
But don't bother trying to bait him into doing so at the Huntersville Waffle House. There is too much to do.
"I can't race any harder or work any harder than I already do," he says, throwing his napkin like a syrup-stained surrender flag onto the table. Ross Chastain is officially looking ahead to Sunday, merely the latest chapter in a lifetime of racing do-or-dies. "But I can race smarter. That work is never done."