We covered quite a few miles since the NASCAR season began back in February at Daytona. The season comes to a close this weekend at Phoenix with the Cup Series Championship race. The four drivers with a chance to win the highest honor in stock car racing each hold a chance to claim the title come Sunday. Kyle Larson locked himself in first with a win at Las Vegas. Christopher Bell joined him by notching a victory at Homestead-Miami. Finally, William Byron and Ryan Blaney each punched their championship ticket at Martinsville. Byron by way of points and Blaney by claiming a win. Let’s take a look at each driver’s season thus far and see if we can’t decipher who claims the NASCAR Cup Series Championship come Sunday.
We absolutely grinded today. It wasn’t pretty, but that’s what this team’s made of. Let’s go chase a Championship in PHX!! pic.twitter.com/jWlAjOsqOp— William Byron (@WilliamByron) October 30, 2023
Average Finish: 11.17
Spring Race Finish: 1st
William Byron came into the NASCAR playoff with more momentum than any other driver. The wheelman of the #24 car for Hendrick Motorsports possesses the most wins and highest average finish of the championship four. Byron also claimed victory back in the Spring when NASCAR came to Phoenix. With that in mind, Byron likely figures as one of the favorites for Sunday’s race. However, of the Championship Four – I actually think Byron lacked the most speed out of everyone in the Round of Eight. Could his team have been prepping for Phoenix with a big points cushion or will that lack of speed continue into the season finale.
Punched our ticket! On to the Championship 4!! pic.twitter.com/73QyoY0qTW— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) October 15, 2023
Average Finish: 15.0
Phoenix Spring Race Finish: 4th
Kyle Larson is the lone driver left competing for a championship that has previously claimed a title – that experience will likely benefit Larson in Sunday’s race. The driver of the HMS #5 also locked himself into the championship in the first race of the Round of Eight. The extra pressure taken off the shoulders of a team has proven to be a boon towards preparing for the championship race in the past. If there is one factor I worry about it’s Larson’s tendency to push a little too hard at times. A great example of this? His pit road entry accident at Homestead leading to a 34th place finish. A similar mistake at Phoenix ends his title hopes immediately.
Average Finish: 12.3
Phoenix Spring Race Finish: 6th
Christopher Bell quietly advanced to the NASCAR Cup Championship for the second straight season courtesy of his victory at Homestead. Bell feels like he flies under the radar compared to the other three drivers. That shouldn’t be the case. Though he is the only member of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Four to finish outside of the top five in the spring race – his sixth place finish still means a competitive car will be fielded on Sunday. Don’t count Bell out.
Our 1st win of the season that clinched our spot into The Playoffs. We are 3 Days away from The NASCAR Championship. pic.twitter.com/CMuIkpCZpJ— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) November 2, 2023
Average Finish: 14.43
Phoenix Spring Race Finish: 2nd
I ate a lot of crow when Ryan Blaney advanced to the Championship Four. I counted out Blaney in every single round of the playoffs because I simply didn’t think Penske had the speed. Each time, Blaney and this #12 team battled to advance, twice by winning races. The most recent victory came at Martinsville where Blaney put on a dominant showing. However, Blaney likely would’ve advanced even without winning thanks to finishes of 6th and 2nd in the two previous races. Much like last year’s championship winner and Penske teammate Joey Logano, Blaney has found speed when it matters. Combined with a knack for this Phoenix track where he finished runner-up in the Spring, Blaney should be a major factor for this title.
Though most of the attention goes to the drivers competing for the championship, there is still a complete field of racers hoping to find their way to Victory Lane on Sunday. Chief among the possible spoilers is Kevin Harvick competing in his last race.
Harvick’s success at Phoenix is the stuff of legend and even though he can’t win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship, you can bet he’ll be hoping to go out with a win. Just how good is Harvick at Phoenix? The driver of the #4 has nine wins and 30 top-ten finishes at the track over 41 starts. He’s finished in the top ten 20 straight times dating back to 2013 and has an average finish of 8.6. So yes, he’ll be a factor on Sunday.
Of course, in NASCAR’s championship history since moving to the championship four format, no driver outside of the contenders has ever won the championship race. With this in mind, the race winner on Sunday is almost certainly coming from the four drivers highlighted above.
In spite of a lackluster regular season with just one victory, Ryan Blaney possesses the most momentum heading into this finale at Phoenix. With Penske’s success at the track last year and Blaney’s recent form, I think we see the driver of the #12 lift the NASCAR Cup Series Championship on Sunday at Phoenix.
Make sure you check out the schedule below so you don’t miss any on-track action.
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Qualifying – 5:05 p.m. CT on FS1
Craftsman 150 (NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – Championship Race) – 9:00 p.m. CT on FS1
NASCAR Xfinity Series Qualifying – 2:30 p.m. CT on USA
NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – 3:35 p.m. CT on USA
NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship – 6:00 p.m. CT on USA
NASCAR Cup Series Championship – 2:00 p.m. CT on NBC
Thank you all for following along with our NASCAR coverage here at Apollo all season! I’ll see you back here after Sunday’s race to recap the finale. In the meantime, be sure to follow ApolloHOU and me on Twitter – I’ll likely be live-tweeting thoughts throughout the day.