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Monday January 25th, 2021 5:12AM

Chastain snags Ganassi Cup ride in busy NASCAR free agency

By Jenna Fryer-AP Auto Racing Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ross Chastain snagged one of the coveted open Cup seats on Monday in a promotion at Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 next season.

This year marks a particularly active free agency period with heavy turnover expected among a limited number of rides. The No. 42 Chevrolet at Ganassi has been filled by Matt Kenseth, who came out of retirement to drive after Kyle Larson was fired in April.

Chastain, a 27-year-old Ganassi development driver, could have gotten the nod when the seat first opened. Ganassi instead went with stability from veteran Kenseth to placate sponsors left skittish after Larson was fired for using a racial slur while playing a video game.

The opening was considered one of the top available seats in NASCAR's “silly season” period.

“I can’t thank Chip enough for this opportunity. The faith he and the organization showed me back in 2018 was a real turning point in my career and I am extremely happy for the chance to join the team again," Chastain said. "Racing in the Cup Series with a serious contender has always been my goal, and I’m looking forward to joining what is a very strong team.

"I know I have my work cut out for me, but I’m ready to get to work and help bring more success to the organization.”

Chastain is one of many Xfinity Series drivers hoping to jump to the Cup Series. Chase Briscoe began the year chasing eight victories, the number he believes will earn him a Cup ride, and he won his seventh race last weekend. Austin Cindric, the regular-season champion, could be in play for a promotion via Team Penske.

The No. 48 being vacated by seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports is considered the top available ride, while rumblings persist that Denny Hamlin has put together some sort of ownership group that will field a Toyota next year.

Bubba Wallace, who has parceled together millions of dollars in sponsorship since becoming vocal in social equality issues, is the top prize in the free agency because of the funding he will bring to a team. A contract offer from Ganassi was revoked by the team owner when Wallace delayed a decision.

Wallace has since said he won't return to Richard Pettty Motorsports and is believed to be part of Hamlin's efforts. With Wallace out of the picture for Ganassi, he went with the driver he's long had in his plans. Chastain will be teammates next season with Kurt Busch, who has advanced to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Chastain has had a rocky rise through NASCAR's national series and a deal on a full-time Xfinity Series ride that seemed too good to be true turned out to be indeed just that.

Jeff Carpoff, a CEO of a small player in NASCAR sponsorship, noticed Chastain working odd jobs at the race track on weekends he was also competing. Carpoff made Chastain his project and the centerpiece of company DC Solar's plans to expand its sponsorship program.

Carpoff in November 2018 named Chastain the driver of a full Xfinity Series ride at Ganassi that would be sponsored by DC Solar. But the FBI raided the company just a month later and Carpoff was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.

The sponsorship money evaporated, Ganassi shuttered the Xfinity Series team and Chastain was out of a job about six weeks before the 2019 season opener.

Chastain, an eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida, parceled together every race he could for 2019. He ran 35 Cup races, made 19 starts in the Xfinity Series and raced for the Truck Series championship for Niece Motorsports. He won three Truck Series races and finished second in the championship standings.

This year, Chastain has run a full Xfinity schedule for Kaulig Racing and is ranked eighth heading into the opening race of the playoffs Saturday. He scored his fifth runner-up finish of the season on Friday night and noted how hard he's working to make it in NASCAR.

“It’s tough fighting for everything. I want this so bad. I want to be in this sport and win races,” Chastain said after Bristol. “I know it is second and it’s great ... there’s a lot of things I could do different and I just didn’t get it done.”

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