With NASCAR’s best hoping to claim the Cup Series Championship at Phoenix, the final race of the season held plenty of intrigue. Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, and William Byron each hoped to claim their first NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Meanwhile, Kyle Larson hoped to secure a second title. In the end, Ryan Blaney managed to place highest among the Championship Four – winning his first championship in the process.
William Byron and Kyle Larson each started in the front two rows, giving them a bit of an edge over Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell who both started outside of the top ten. However, with stage points not going towards the result at the end of the race, that edge came down more to track position.
William Byron jumped out to the early lead in Stage One though Larson wouldn’t be far behind in third place. Mired back in the pack, Blaney and Bell each attempted to work their way towards the front. Unfortunately for both, passing proved to be a struggle throughout the field on Sunday. Neither Bell nor Blaney proved able to race their way into the top five.
However, both Hendrick cars experienced a fall-off as the stage went on. Larson eventually dropped to fifth while William Byron narrowly held off Kevin Harvick for the stage win.
After the stage break, William Byron remained in the lead. However, Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell quickly found themselves closing in on Kyle Larson in fourth. The difficulty with passing continued to show as all three drivers battled.
However, Blaney eventually found his way by both Larson and Bell courtesy of a three-wide move. Meanwhile, at the front, Kevin Harvick finally found his way past William Byron for the lead.
Just as in the first stage, the long green flag run proved to be detrimental to the Hendrick cars. Larson continued to plummet after falling behind the rest of the championship contenders. Byron’s pace also suffered, dropping into the clutches of Ryan Blaney who would claim the top spot among the Championship Four.
And then there were three.
Christopher Bell experienced a catastrophic brake failure eliminating him from the race.
The resulting pit stops under caution led to Ryan Blaney losing all the ground he had gained under green flag conditions with both Larson and Byron restarting ahead of him thanks to better stops.
Blaney eventually passed Larson but Byron’s fourth-place finish in the second stage was the best of the playoff contenders. Blaney finished sixth, while Larson finished seventh, and non-playoff driver Chris Buescher claimed the top spot.
After stops under caution, William Byron found himself in second place for the start of the final stage. Kyle Larson managed to bump up to fourth while Blaney gained ground by restarting fifth – yet found himself behind both Hendrick cars once again.
Blaney quickly passed Larson on the ensuing restart for fourth while Byron managed to stay in second place by holding off Martin Truex Jr. MTJ wouldn’t remain between Byron and Blaney for long, however – as the driver of the #12 quickly passed MTJ before closing in on and passing William Byron.
Through green flag pit stops, Larson found himself in front of William Byron. In the meantime, Ryan Blaney pressed Ross Chastain for the lead of the race. In doing so, Blaney allowed Kyle Larson to close the gap. Blaney’s tires suffered from the fight giving both Larson and Byron a heavy dose of hope.
That hope skyrocketed after Kyle Busch brought out the caution with 40 laps to go. The pit stops led to a major shake-up which saw Kyle Larson move to the front of the Championship Four.
A wild restart saw Kyle Larson jump out ahead of the other two contenders but Ryan Blaney quickly closed the gap. With 20 laps remaining, Ryan Blaney passed Larson for the top spot among the title contenders.
Ross Chastain would win the race but by finishing second, Ryan Blaney claimed his first ever NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
The current NASCAR postseason format took a lot of flak heading into this final race of the season. I’m still not sure which side of the fence I fall on.
Obviously, making the final race a top-finisher-takes-all-battle adds some intrigue. The final race determining the championship definitely makes for more excitement than a championship race that ended early in the season. Just look at Formula One at the moment.
However, NASCAR and motorsports in general aren’t like other American sports. Letting a championship play out over the entire course of the season certainly feels like the proper way for a racing series to determine a champion given the variance in track type.
Ultimately though, NASCAR elected to stick with the “playoff” format and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Additionally, the difficulty of passing at Phoenix limited the on-track action as well. Unfortunately, with the current generation of car, this track just doesn’t allow for a wonderful racing product. I hope to see the final race return to Homestead or a similar track soon.
As for the champion himself, it certainly feels like this was a star-making performance for Ryan Blaney. By claiming his first championship, he answered a lot of the questions about his ability that some pundits had earlier in the season. When the moment was at its highest pressure, he delivered and then some.
The championship is the second straight for Penske and Ford.