Ryan Blaney only led two laps and finished second in Sunday’s finale at Phoenix Raceway, but winner Ross Chastain not being a contender meant Blaney did all he needed to do to win his maiden NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Blaney restarted sixth with thirty-one laps remaining behind his championship rivals Kyle Larson and William Byron. The two Hendrick Motorsports cars followed Chastain with Larson ahead before Blaney found his run past Byron. Larson, the 2021 champion, was unable to keep him at bay any longer with twenty to go.
“When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” recalled Larson, who settled for third. “I felt like I could maybe hold off William for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan was going to be tough. He could just move around a lot better than me, kind of be more comfortable on the edge. He definitely looked loose, but he could still push the car. I couldn’t push the car really further than what I was.
“I felt really committed to the bottom. Even when I would move around and make my car feel better, it was slower on lap time. I knew I was in a little bit of trouble and was going to try to put up a fight. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to hold him off. He did a really good job. His team continued to improve on the race car throughout the last few months. They deserved to win.”
Byron finished directly behind Blaney and Larson for third in the championship. While short of a title, it is still Byron’s best season by far with a series-high six wins and his first Championship Round appearance.
“He’s always aggressive,” Byron quipped concerning Blaney’s driving style in Phoenix. “He’s always quick and aggressive. I don’t think it was anything new. I mean, I think maybe just the situations that we were all in and the way the track is here. I thought it was pretty similar. It’s a bit of a letdown based on how we started the race. As soon as we got into stage two, trying to figure out how do we manage what we have, maybe make it a little bit better if we can, but we just need more on the short tracks. We just struggled as a team on the short tracks.
“We had a great season, a lot to be proud of, a lot of really solid races, communicating well as a team. I feel like all that stuff can just go up a notch hopefully, just have a bit more speed at certain tracks that we know are important. Definitely down the stretch here it was tough. We didn’t have really what we needed, but that’s okay.”
While Larson and Byron combined for ten wins in 2023 to help Chevrolet win the manufacturer’s championship, Blaney ruined the party by taking the driver’s title in a Ford. Chevrolet won all three national series manufacturer’s crowns, whereas Ford claimed the three for drivers with Ben Rhodes in the Craftsman Truck Series and Cole Custer in the Xfinity Series. It is the sixth time that a marque swept the three drivers’ titles, with Chevrolet doing so from 1995 to 1998 and again in 2001.
By winning his first NASCAR title, Blaney adds to a family legacy that includes his grandfather Lou and father Dave being among the top dirt track racers in America. Dave Blaney, a longtime Cup Series veteran, joined his son at Phoenix.
“For me to kind of add some asphalt into there is pretty good because that’s what I grew up doing,” said Blaney. “Just special. Growing up around the race track, watching Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon), Tony (Stewart), Mark Martin, I love those guys. I saw them win championships. I wanted to be that way. For it to come full circle is special. I couldn’t think of a better spot of my family being there and them being able to witness it.
“They are just as much a part of it as I am. Not only my dad, my mom sacrificed more than you could imagine to make sure I could get to every race and do what I needed to do to get going. I have two awesome sisters that support me. It’s pretty special to have them here.”
While Chastain was the first non-championship driver to win the season finale since the playoff format’s introduction in 2014, Christopher Bell had the dubious honour of being the first Championship Round qualifier to finish last in the deciding event. He suffered a brake rotor failure and crashed on lap 108.
“That was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career so 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,” recounted Bell. “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 Four is something we’re really proud of.
“I’m very proud of the effort put forth by our team to get to the Championship Four, but I do feel like we left a lot on the table at various races throughout the year. I’m excited about the future. We haven’t reached our potential yet.”
Kevin Harvick closed out his legendary career with his twenty-first consecutive top ten at his best track. His Stewart-Haas Racing team-mate Aric Almirola was thirteenth in his final start as a full-time driver.
Legacy Motor Club‘s Carson Hocevar and Erik Jones finished together in nineteenth and twentieth, respectively, in the last race before the team switches to Toyota for 2024. Hocevar, a 2023 Truck Series Championship Round driver, will compete for Cup Rookie of the Year honours in 2024, an award claimed by Ty Gibbs for 2023 as the lone full-time rookie.
Blaney’s best friend Bubba Wallace also had reason to celebrate, finishing tenth in a special Star Wars X-Wing themed livery. 23XI Racing partner Tyler Reddick placed twenty-second in his TIE Fighter scheme, meaning the Rebel Alliance scored yet another victory over the Galactic Empire. For Blaney, a lifelong Star Wars fan and self-proclaimed “aspiring Jedi”, it truly was a day to remember.
|1||8||1||Ross Chastain||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|2||15||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||312||Running|
|3||4||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|4||1||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|5||9||17||Chris Buescher||RFK Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|6||2||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|7||3||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|8||6||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|9||19||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||312||Running|
|10||5||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|11||16||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|12||21||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|13||28||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|14||12||41||Ryan Preece||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|15||31||6||Brad Keselowski||RFK Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|16||20||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|17||23||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|18||17||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||312||Running|
|19||22||42||Carson Hocevar*||Legacy Motor Club||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|20||7||43||Erik Jones||Legacy Motor Club||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|21||11||54||Ty Gibbs||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|22||10||45||Tyler Reddick||23XI Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|23||24||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|24||26||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|25||18||8||Kyle Busch||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||311||Running|
|26||25||21||Harrison Burton||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||311||Running|
|27||34||15||J.J. Yeley*||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||311||Running|
|28||33||77||Ty Dillon||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||310||Running|
|29||35||31||Justin Haley||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||310||Running|
|30||14||38||Todd Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||309||Running|
|31||29||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||308||Running|
|32||32||16||A.J. Allmendinger||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet||308||Running|
|33||36||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Chevrolet||306||Running|
|34||30||51||Ryan Newman*||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||305||Running|
|35||27||2||Austin Cindric||Team Penske||Ford||301||Running|
|36||13||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||108||Accident|
Underline – Championship Round
Italics – Rookie of the Year