For the first time in 10 years of the elimination Playoff format, the NASCAR Cup Series champion failed to win the title race—not that it mattered one bit to 2023 champion Ryan Blaney.
When he took the checkered flag in second place in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race, the driver of the No. 12 Ford gave Team Penske its second straight title in NASCAR’s premier series and gave Ford a sweep of Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
Oh, and as Blaney was pulling away from Kyle Larson and William Byron over a 31-lap green-flag run to the finish to claim his first Cup championship on Sunday, Ross Chastain secured his second victory of the season.
In a fierce battle for the title against 2021 champion Kyle Larson, Blaney edged ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports driver on Lap 292 and secured second place behind Chastain, who grabbed the top spot from Denny Hamlin after a restart on Lap 282.
Chastain crossed the finish line 1.230 seconds ahead of Blaney, whose elation wasn’t dulled one iota by the runner-up result—given the bigger prize he won by finishing second.
“Unbelievable year, unbelievable Playoffs for us,” said Blaney, who won last week at Martinsville to advance to the Championship 4 with Larson, Byron and Christopher Bell. “To win back-to-back Cup titles for (team owner Roger) Penske, that’s so special. Having my family here, winning my first Cup title, I got emotional in the car. I’m not a very emotional guy.
“You never want to count yourself out. I mean, I think in the summer we were struggling a little bit, but we never gave up. We just went to work. I’ve said that all week, like, this group goes to work, and they figure out problems. That’s why they’re such an amazing group to be with, with the Team Penske folks, ’cause they just put their head down and do the work, accept the challenge.”
Bell fell out of the race on Lap 108, but Blaney, Larson and Byron came home second, third and fourth. Blaney’s margin over Larson at the finish was 2.243 seconds. Though Larson beat Blaney off pit road during the final caution for Kyle Busch’s spin in Turn 3 on Lap 275, Larson couldn’t hold off Blaney’s superior car.
“Yeah, his car was really fast,” Larson acknowledged. “Really the last few months. Yeah, especially here today. Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game. We weren’t the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops ’cause I knew the way our team executed… the way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop, I knew that was going to be our only shot really to win.
“They did everything in their power to give us the winning job done there. Huge thank you to them. I needed to come out the leader on that restart. Ross got a really good start from the second row. Was hoping I could get clear of Denny and get the lead, have Ross kind of protect for me behind me.
“I’m not sure if it would have made a difference.”
Byron took off from the pole position and won the first 60-lap stage wire-to-wire but not without a challenge from third-place starter Kevin Harvick and a charge from Chastain, who was eighth on the grid to start the race.
Over the final three laps of the stage, Byron used the high line through the corners to hold off Harvick, who finished second. Chastain was third after 60 laps, 0.584 seconds behind the stage winner at the green/checkered flag.
First off pit road from stall one, Byron opened a lead of more than a second after the break. Larson, Blaney and Bell all improved their positions on pit road and soon were running fourth, fifth and sixth with Byron in the lead and Harvick and Chastain in front of them.
On Lap 86, Bell made a deft pass of Blaney for fifth. Lap 93 brought a dramatic change at the front of the field, as Harvick surged to the outside of Byron in Turns 1 and 2 and cleared him down the backstretch. Byron dropped another spot to Chastain and traded third with Blaney, who secured the position on Lap 107.
“Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight,” Byron said. “Especially when we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight back in second through fifth, just couldn’t gain a lot of speed through (Turns) 1 and 2, just kind of having to really over-slow the car, get it to the bottom.
“That’s all we had there.”
On Lap 108, Bell’s race fell apart. Complaining of brake issues, he crashed hard into the outside wall in Turn 3 when his right front rotor exploded and was eliminated from the race in 36th place, leaving Blaney, Byron and Larson to battle for the championship.
“Well, I mean that was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career,” Bell said after a mandatory trip to the infield care center. “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.
“It stings to not have a shot at the end of it, obviously. We were all four really close, and we all four showed strengths at different times.”
Bell’s accident caused the second caution and provided a welcome opportunity for pit stops and adjustments. After the subsequent restart on Lap 117, Chastain passed Harvick for the lead and stayed out front for 54 consecutive laps until Buescher passed him for the top spot on Lap 171.
Buescher pulled away to win the second stage, which ended on Lap 185. Byron finished fourth and held the edge in the championship battle over Blaney in sixth and Larson in seventh.
As the laps counted down, however, the race came to Blaney.
Chastain led a race-high 157 laps to 95 for Byron. Harvick finished seventh after leading 23 laps in his final season as a full-time driver NASCAR Cup Series driver.
“We built a team here at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Harvick said. “We built so many things from the bottom up. I think the hard work is something that people recognize. As you guys have seen through the week, I’m a pretty emotional person. I’ve just done a really good job of hiding that.”
For his part, Chastain enjoyed competing against Harvick in his final race almost as much as he enjoyed winning.
“Racing him early in the race was bucket list, little kid in me,” said Chastain who won for the first time at Phoenix and the fourth time in his career. “Racing that 2005 (NASCAR) game, I drove as the 29 GM Goodwrench car (Harvick’s first Cup car with Richard Childress Racing). Now I’m driving a Chevy for GM to Victory Lane, a Camaro.
“I am beside myself that we were able to do that. That last caution we were really tight. It saved us. (Crew chief) Phil Surgen and this group at Trackhouse, all of our GM support staff, sim staff, everybody came up with a way to make this thing turn, and we drove off into the sunset.”
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