By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ross Chastain blasted his way through bumps and potholes in the final lap of overtime at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday to earn his first career Cup victory and the first NASCAR Trackhouse Racing team’s journey to victory lane.
Trackhouse is owned by former NASCAR driver Justin Marks and entertainer Pitbull and is in its second season of competition. Chastain, an eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida, was kept by Marks for Trackhouse when Marks bought the entire NASCAR team from Chip Ganassi before this season.
Chastain celebrated by nailing a large watermelon to the top of his Chevrolet.
“It never tasted sweeter, I assure you,” said the 29-year-old with a piece of shell stuck in his beard. Then he took another big bite.
The two-lap sprint produced the most aggressive action of a long Sunday of racing on the permanent circuit used primarily for Formula One. The race had nine warnings and lasted 3 hours, 20 minutes.
Chastain wasn’t even the leader, Tyler Reddick had somehow moved to the front in the previous one-lap race between the eighth and ninth cautions, and Chastain also had to deal with his former teammate and mentor AJ Allmendinger. .
Chastain and Allmendinger restarted second and third, while Alex Bowman sat in fourth. He has been reprimanded for “backing off on wins, and for a moment, it looked like another one was going to fall into his lap.
Chastain used an aggressive move to overtake Reddick and take the lead, and Allmendinger followed suit. Bowman also jumped past Reddick and closed the gap on Chastain and Allmendinger as the two buddies jostled and bumped for the lead.
Overtime featured four lead changes: Chastain and Allmendinger traded it twice, and Bowman even got to the front, but Chastain decided the race by dive-bombing Allmendinger. That turned Allmendinger, winner of the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, into Bowman and Allmendinger moved from second to 33rd.
“I was so worried about AJ on that second to last restart that I let Tyler walk past us,” Chastain said. “AJ is so good, I’ve learned a lot from him, and it’s like ‘How do you beat the guy? He taught me so much!’”
I wasn’t thrilled that I won the race with the dive bomb at Allmendinger.
“I feel bad for AJ,” Chastain said. “I mean, he’s going to be mad at me, but we ran hard and he owes me one.”
Chastain, and Trackhouse, have been fiercely competitive since the start of the season as their drivers have been fantastic in NASCAR’s new Next Gen race car. Daniel Suarez, who spent all of last season as the sole Trackhouse driver, dominated from the start and led every lap of the first stage before a blown tire destroyed his race on the second lap of the second stage.
He has been fast and led laps this year and came close to winning both Las Vegas and Atlanta. At the Austin Speedway, Chastain led four times for a race-high 31 laps.
His win was the first in 120 career Cup starts.
Bowman finished second for Hendrick Motorsports and a sweep of Chevrolet. Christopher Bell was third for Toyota and followed by Hendrick’s Chase Elliott, the defending race winner. Reddick was fifth and polesitter Ryan Blaney was the Ford driver with the best finish in sixth.
Chase Briscoe was a contender on Sunday until his race fell apart in the final 12 laps.
He had a poor restart and found himself in unexpected traffic when he drove the Stewart-Haas Racing Ford off the track and around the corner, prompting a NASCAR penalty.
Minutes later, a warning gave NASCAR pause to review Briscoe’s off-road ride.
“As long as it’s called that for everyone, I’m all for it,” said Tony Stewart, co-owner of Briscoe’s car and guest analyst Sunday at the Fox Sports booth. The NASCAR Hall of Famer also noted that Briscoe lost several positions when he was pushed off the track, as opposed to cutting the course to move up the running order, and dropped to eighth.
NASCAR ultimately agreed with Stewart’s assessment and waived the penalty.
But things didn’t get any better: Briscoe had to pit for tires and dropped to 31st by the next restart. He finished in 30th place.
The Cup Series runs Sunday at Richmond Raceway in Virginia. Alex Bowman is the defending race winner and Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race at Richmond last September.
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