The importance of what he had just done wasn‘t immediately apparent to Ross Chastain.
It was Sunday, October 30, 2022, and Chastain had just stolen the final NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Playoff berth in the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway.
Entering the final two corners at the venerable short track, Chastain grabbed fifth gear, pinned his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet against the outside wall and shot around the perimeter like a roulette ball launched around the rim of the wheel.
That impossibly risky, unprecedented move netted Chastain a fourth-place finish—enough to knock an unsuspecting Denny Hamlin out of the Playoffs.
But the contribution to NASCAR lore didn‘t register right away.
“When we were driving home that night, we stopped in Walkertown, somewhere just south of Martinsville on the way back to Charlotte, and we ate at a Waffle House,” Chastain said before last Sunday‘s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “We were laughing and talking about it, but looking back, it really didn‘t (register).
“It wasn‘t till I went back up there to remove the wall. Mr. Campbell (Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell) had me up. We took a piece of Kubota equipment and lifted the center of the wall out with most of the word ‘Martinsville‘ in it. He gave that to us, and that‘s going to go with the Hail Melon car that (team owner) Justin (Marks) kept.”
In his brief Cup career, Chastain already has added two verbs to the NASCAR lexicon. The first was the pejorative “Chastained,” meaning victimized by overly aggressive driving by the watermelon farmer turned stock car star.
The second is “Hail-Melon-ed,” which Hamlin‘s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, used to describe the move that knocked Hamlin out of the Playoffs, as in his driver “got Hail-Melon-ed.”
For his part, Hamlin never saw it coming.
“Chris told me how many spots we had to get (to advance to the next round) with very few laps,” recalled Hamlin, who finished fifth. “I was trying to get as many as I could, and Chris was constantly telling me where we were.
“I just remember him saying we were two points ahead going down the back straightaway on the last lap, battling Brad (Keselowski) for one more position. At that point, I didn‘t think there was a need to push the envelope anymore. But, yeah, ended up out of it, and all I remember is him (Chastain) being there beside me at the end.”
Second-place finisher Kyle Larson had a better idea than Hamlin that something unique was happening behind him.
“You look in the mirror to see kind of how close the guy is behind you, and I remember just seeing something kind of going on… like coming off turn 4, there was a new car in my mirror, so that‘s all I really remember from that.
“And then you see the replay and all that. Yeah, that was crazy, for sure, and I‘m sure we‘ll see the highlight of it a million more times as we lead into Martinsville. But, yeah, that was definitely wild.”
Since its installation as the penultimate race on the NASCAR Cup schedule in 2020, Martinsville has provided high drama, as it is likely to do once again in Sunday‘s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Facing a must-win situation in 2020, Chase Elliott did just that and went on to claim the series title the following Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
By the time Chastain had finished his unlikely trip around the outside wall last year, Christopher Bell had crossed the finish line for an 11th-hour victory that propelled him into the Championship 4.
Time may blur the memory of those accomplishments, but the Hail Melon will remain at the forefront of the sport‘s history.
Though the physical evidence of the feat may be obliterated by the removal of the wall section and a fresh coat of paint, Chastain‘s name will be linked inextricably with that imaginative path to the Championship 4.
“As I removed the wall, that‘s where it really set in,” Chastain said, harkening back to March 7, when he was gifted with the wall section. “That was the moment it sunk in. It just kind of hit me that this always will be something that I‘m remembered for.
“It made it even sweeter to go to Nashville this year and win after that—because it was like a third win in 2022—but I don‘t want that to be my lasting legacy. I want to win more races and fight for everything we can fight for.”
— NASCAR Wire Service —