Ryan Blaney bested three other title finalists to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. Ross Chastain won the race, marking the first time a non-championship-eligible driver won the season finale since NASCAR shifted to an elimination playoff format in 2014.
Blaney beat William Byron, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell to win the championship. It was his first series title and the fourth for Team Penske, which also won the 2022 championship with Joey Logano.
Byron started on the pole and dominated the early going, leading every lap in Stage 1. But in the second stage Kevin Harvick, Chastain and Chris Buescher, none of whom were championship-eligible, asserted themselves and sent Byron sliding down the running order.
Despite not having a car capable of winning the race, Byron still outran the other three playoff finalists for the remainder of the second stage but in the third and final stage, Blaney eventually passed Byron for the championship lead he would only relinquish during a late pit stop cycle.
Blaney finished second to Chastain in the race. Larson and Byron finished third and fourth respectively.
Bell’s bid for his first series crown ended when a broken brake rotor caused him to crash into the outside wall on Lap 108. The contact severely damaged his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and sent him to the garage prematurely. He was uninjured in the accident.
Before the accident, Bell had been running inside the top 10 and jockeying with Larson and Blaney for position. It marked the second consecutive year that Bell advanced to the championship playoff round, but left Phoenix without the championship.
“Well, I mean that was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career,” Bell said. “So, yeah, I was surprised but early on in the race I had a little bit of brake fade and the second run it just kept getting worse and worse. I don’t know. Just obviously a disappointing way to end. I’m super, super proud of this 20 team and all of our partners at DEWALT and Rheem. To be in the Final 4 is something we’re really proud of.”
Significance of Blaney’s championship
Earlier this year, NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty controversially compared Blaney to former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. Though Kahne won 18 races in his career, he never seemed to live up to the potential he teased at times. Blaney, Petty said, was the same way.
That may have been true before Sunday, but not anymore.
Blaney shook off a disappointing summer, a year of struggles from manufacturer Ford, and his unfulfilled career to mount a stellar playoff run and ultimately become a NASCAR champion on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
The breakthrough moment for Blaney came in an unlikely season, given how slow his No. 12 car seemed to be in some months. But Blaney followed the model set by Team Penske teammate Joey Logano last season: Make the playoffs, hang in there long enough to allow the team to gain speed and then mount a charge to the final four.
Like Logano last year, Blaney then seized the moment and can add a NASCAR championship to his family legacy. Father Dave Blaney is a former World of Outlaws champion, uncle Dale Blaney also won a sprint car championship and grandfather Lou Blaney won more than 200 sprint car races.
Not bad for a driver who went 15 straight races this season with no finishes better than ninth.
Now the question will be what Blaney’s championship can do for NASCAR. Over the years, he has been one of the most willing drivers to make non-traditional media appearances, such as doing talk shows or appearing on sitcoms. But without many trophies, those opportunities only come so often.
Blaney having the title of NASCAR Cup Series champion will help both him and NASCAR’s quest for more star power, as he’s a popular driver who is still early in his career at age 29. — Jeff Gluck, motorsports writer
(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)