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Why Ross Chastain is (almost) everyone's new favorite NASCAR driver

Welcome, lapsed NASCAR fans, casual NASCAR fans, never-were NASCAR fans. Perhaps you’ve lost touch with the great American sport of NASCAR racing. Perhaps you tuned out when Dale Earnhardt ascended to that great Victory Lane in the sky, or when legends like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart hung up their steering wheels. Perhaps you’ve never quite understood the allure of driving fast in circles.

Allow me to introduce you to Ross Chastain, the daredevil watermelon farmer who ought to be your new favorite NASCAR driver.

Chastain, an eighth-generation watermelon farmer, is also one of four drivers competing for the 2022 Cup Series championship this weekend in Phoenix. That’s important, yes, but not nearly as important as how he got there: by pulling off the “Hail Melon,” a finishing move so absurd, so ridiculous, so astounding that even NASCAR lifers were at a loss for words.

On the final lap of the Martinsville race, needing to pass two cars to race his way into the championship, Chastain didn’t pursue the typical weave-through-traffic approach. Instead, he tried something never seen outside of a video game: he slammed his car into the wall, then used the curve of the wall to increase his velocity and slingshot him into the championship. Seriously, just watch this madness:

This is what a Mario Kart power-up looks like in real life. This is Tecmo Bo on a race track. This is the kind of thing that you have to be either brilliant or a lunatic, or both, to attempt – and Chastain not only attempted it, he pulled it off!

How did he do it? Over at NBC Sports, Dr. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky provides an exceptional, in-depth physics lesson on the specifics of how Chastain used the wall to his advantage, but the upshot is this: he used centripetal force to rocket himself up through the field, passing five cars in half a lap and eliminating Denny Hamlin from playoff contention.

In the same way that a baseball thrown from a hand can hit around 105 mph, but a jai alai ball thrown from a cesta (those long hand scoops) can hit upwards of 180 mph, Chastain ripped around Martinsville 50 miles an hour faster than the average speed. He was so fast that he set the lap speed record for Martinsville despite riding the wall for only half a lap.

The move put NASCAR in the national spotlight in a way it hasn’t been since the days of Danica Patrick and Dale Junior. The move — dubbed “Hail Melon” — dominated social media for the first half of the week. Even seen-it-all Formula One veterans had to tip their caps to Chastain. Daniel Ricciardo called the move “straight-up hero sh—,” and Fernando Alonso declared it the move of 2022:

The fact that Chastain had the watermelons to pull off this kind of move — and the fact that he learned it from a video game! — would be enough on its own to gain him some new fans. But Chastain is a rare cat among 2020s NASCAR drivers: outspoken, courting controversy, tiptoeing up to and, to some, jumping right over the line between hard competitor and poor sport. In a world where NASCAR drivers now sport market-tested, sponsor-friendly personas — after all, everyone likes vanilla, right? — Chastain makes waves and makes enemies.

In that, he’s not all that different from NASCAR drivers of old. Darrell Waltrip, who never met a corner he couldn’t cut, set the stage for Chastain. Dale Earnhardt might have punched his lights out afterward, but he’d have respected the move regardless.

It’s a thin line between fair aggression and unfair antagonism, and Chastain enraged many of his fellow competitors earlier this year with what they believed was his hammer-down-and-hell-with-the-consequences philosophy, from an aggressive use of the bumper to simply deciding not to follow the race course in general:

Hamlin, in particular, has clashed with Chastain on multiple occasions, making the irony of Chastain’s move bouncing Hamlin from the championship all the more painful. If Hamlin were to exact the revenge he promised earlier this summer, the championship race would be an exquisitely catastrophic place to do it.

Even as the wider sports world reveled in the Hail Melon, Chastain’s fellow competitors aren't quite as enthralled, understandable given they’re the ones that have to share the track with a bunch of potential wall-riding imitators.

“As spectacular as it was, as much as it worked, the problem is now the box is open, right?” fellow Championship 4 contender Joey Logano said after the Martinsville race. “Now every Xfinity race, every Truck race, every Cup race, no matter the track, this wall riding is going to be a play. That’s not good … I mean, it was awesome, it was cool. It happened for the first time. There’s no rule against it. There needs to be a rule against this one because I don’t know if you want the whole field riding the wall coming to the checkered flag.”

“Not a good look,” 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson said. “Why would you think that’s fair?”

“From a global perspective of our sport, I think it is kind of embarrassing in some ways,” said Chase Elliott, one of Chastain’s three competitors for the championship. “For the integrity of what we do, it’s not a great look, in my opinion.”

But what’s good for drivers isn’t always good for fans, and vice versa. Chastain has already said he probably won’t attempt to repeat the move — for one thing, he was pulling 5Gs in the turn, and it hurt like hell — so fans tuning in hoping to see him repeat the feat will probably go away disappointed. But Chastain has done something no other NASCAR driver has been able to do in years — inspire interest in on-track racing among casual and non-NASCAR fans — and that’s notable in itself. Win or lose on Sunday, he’ll be a must-watch — which is exactly what NASCAR needs right now.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 03: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet, speaks to the media during the NASCAR Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway on November 03, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ross Chastain speaks to the media during the NASCAR Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway on November 03, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.