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How a watermelon farmer got to drive in the NASCAR Cup series

They live by a slogan out in the fields: Know where your melon comes from.

If his NASCAR career ended tomorrow and Ross Chastain never found another ride, he would gladly return to a life sowing watermelon seeds.

One inch apart into the soil. Space the hills three to four feet apart between the rows.

Curse any freeze warnings.

Watch out for weeds.

“No matter what happens, I’m going back to farming one day,” Chastain said. “No regrets. I’ll be the low man on the totem pole, but I’ll be back being a farmer with my dad and brother and the rest of the family.”

The time for returning to a 350-acre farm in Florida hasn’t come and won’t for a while if Chastain eventually discovers a competitive Cup team that believes in him.

Just as one did Sunday.

Chastain drove the Roush Fenway No. 6 Ford at the Pennzoil 400 as a substitute for Ryan Newman, whose amazing recovery after a brutal crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 last Monday led to him walking out of the hospital two days later.

“Definitely not the way you want to get in,” Chastain said. “Thank goodness Ryan is OK. He just told me to go drive it and do what I do.”

This is what he did Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Chastain finished a promising 10th in Stage 1, but things got worse from there. His day ended on the lead lap with six to go when he got loose between Turns 1 and 2 and spun out.

He walked away in 27th place.

“A lot of mistakes by me,” Chastain said. “These guys ate me alive on restarts. I lost three to four places each time. The car deserved better. Lot to learn from. I had a top-10 car and picked the wrong lines all day and then go spin out. Unacceptable.”

Journeymen athletes are hard to beat for interesting tales across sports, and NASCAR is no different. The up-and-down movement between three series of racing can make for some maddening times.

Chastain seems a poster child for those chasing a more stable on-track existence.

He was on his way in 2018 when grabbing opportunity from Chip Ganassi Racing to run part time for its Xfinity team. He even won at Las Vegas, after which he asked permission to smash a watermelon on the track.

Officials agreed, requesting only that he sweep all of the rind into the infield grass.

And, no, a giant plant species hasn’t sprouted there since.

But the time with Ganassi ended before the 2019 season, when an anchor sponsor withdrew its support after the arrest of its owners for pleading guilty to running a federal Ponzi scheme.

You could try to make this stuff up about a 27-year-old watermelon farmer, but who would believe it?

Chastain finished second in NACAR’s Truck Series last year and now drives the No. 10 full time in Xfinity for Kaulig Racing, most of his time in Cup having fluctuated between middle-class teams.

There could be some good news coming. An active offseason in the top series is expected to create several openings for 2021. But he needs to be more consistent than Sunday. While those running Newman’s team said Chastain was their first call following the Daytona crash, nothing permanent has been promised for the near future.

Farming and racing

Think of the contrast between farming and racing, beyond the fact one’s car is going 180 mph down a straightway for three hours and a tractor no more than 3 mph for up to 16 hours some days.

There isn’t much patience from those driving those final laps toward a checkered flag.

Farmers are some of the more patient folks on earth.

Then there is weather.

It can delay or cancel a race.

It can destroy an entire crop.

“There has been a lot of chaos in my racing career thus far, so many unplanned things,” Chastain said. “You think things are going straight and then you’re turning right or left. It’s tough not being in a fully-funded Cup car. I just have to keep doing my best.”

No matter how long racing lasts, his future is elsewhere — keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged, using a fertilizer with less nitrogen, checking the color of the melons, cutting stems close to the fruit.

And always knowing where your melon comes from.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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