In a historic turn of events within NASCAR’s elimination playoff format, Ryan Blaney emerged as the 2023 champion in the NASCAR Cup Series without claiming victory in the final race. This outcome hasn’t happened since the playoff format’s inception ten years ago, but did not take away from Blaney’s accomplishment, as he secured the championship by finishing second at Phoenix Raceway.
Driving the No. 12 Ford, Blaney ensured a consecutive championship win for Team Penske, with teammate Joey Logano winning in 2022. It marked a triumph for Ford during Championship Weekend, with a trifecta of Ford vehicles winning in the Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series, too. Meanwhile, Ross Chastain captured his second win of the season.
The race commenced with Byron on pole, winning the first 60-lap stage despite challenges from Harvick and Chastain, who started eighth.
After a round of pit stops, Byron held a lead of over a second, but as the race progressed, positions shifted. Harvick eventually overtook Byron on Lap 93, while Bell, showcasing skillful driving, moved past Blaney earlier on Lap 86. The change in lead caused Byron to struggle with the balance of his car, making it difficult to maintain speed, especially through turns.
Christopher Bell, who was one of the final four contenders for the championship, suffered a devastating end to his race on Lap 108 when the car blew a brake rotor and slammed into the wall. His untimely exit from the race left Blaney, Byron, and Larson to contend for the title. The caution also allowed drivers a chance for pit adjustments. Post-restart, Chastain managed to capture the lead from Harvick and remained in control until Chris Buescher usurped him on Lap 171.
Buescher’s victory in the second stage left Byron in fourth place, with Blaney and Larson trailing at sixth and seventh, respectively. As the race unfolded, Blaney found his rhythm and began closing in on the leaders.
The single car spin of Kyle Busch brought out the caution on Lap 275, allowing drivers to pit once again. Larson managed to beat Blaney as they came off pit road, but ultimately he couldn’t keep pace with Blaney’s superior car.
The conclusion of the Cup Series race was highlighted by a 31-lap stretch devoid of any cautions, during which Blaney surged ahead of championship drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron. In the intense duel, Blaney passed Larson, the 2021 champion, on Lap 292, securing the second position behind Chastain, who had overtaken Denny Hamlin for the lead following a restart on Lap 282.
Chastain finished with a substantial lead over Byron, who managed to lead for 95 laps. The race was also notable for Harvick, who led for 23 laps and later reflected on the hard work and emotions involved in his last season as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver.
Reflecting on his season, Blaney expressed his disbelief at the extraordinary year and playoffs they experienced. He praised the determination and problem-solving ability of his Team Penske colleagues, who tirelessly worked through challenges, particularly during a summer of struggles.
Larson praised his pit crew’s exceptional performance, acknowledging that despite his car’s limitations on the track, their work on pit road kept them competitive. He had hoped that their swift work during the pit stops would give them a fighting chance for the win.
Byron explained his car’s fall-off as getting too tight in the turns after the track rubbered in, and from there he lost speed. However, given the #24 team’s exceptional year and everything learned from the playoffs, they hope to have another shot at it next year.
Chastain took pleasure in competing against Harvick in his farewell race and shared his elation at his victory, acknowledging his childhood dream of racing against such an esteemed driver. He credited his team at Trackhouse and the extensive support system for making the necessary adjustments to secure his race-winning performance.