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Did You Notice?: What a NASCAR Cup Championship Would Mean To …

Did You Notice? … The NASCAR Cup Series audience has declined during the postseason?

As you can see on the Frontstretch TV Ratings page, only one of nine playoff races so far has posted an increase in U.S. television viewership. Formula 1 is providing a serious challenge to stock car racing’s supremacy in the 18-49 age group.

There aren’t many opportunities to change the trajectory over the course of a long season, one where the Next Gen car has developed a bit of a sophomore slump. But this weekend at Phoenix Raceway? That’s one of them. NASCAR crowns a champion among four drivers Sunday (Nov. 5) in its championship race, and in a sport based on personality, whomever becomes the reigning champ gets elevated as the face of the sport for the next 12 months.

See also
Martin Truex Jr. Just Had the Saddest Playoffs Ever

That provides some opportunity for growth. Three of the four drivers remaining have never won the title, and the fourth? He’s on the precipice of defining himself as the best driver of his generation.

Let’s take a closer look at what a potential championship would mean for each driver. Can they reverse a recent malaise that settled on NASCAR during the second half of the year?

If Ryan Blaney Wins …

  • He finally ditches the narrative as a potential top-tier driver who can’t perform in the clutch. As I wrote at CBS earlier this week, Blaney has a history of going deep in the playoffs only to come up short in the final round. He went 0-for-4 in previous Round of 8 appearances before finally getting over the hump with a Martinsville Speedway victory.
  • Along those same lines, he’ll catch up to peers like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, drivers who rose up around the same time but have far more accolades — including Cup titles of their own. A win at Phoenix would allow Blaney to match them there and bump his victory total up to 11, already ahead of drivers like Sterling Marlin and Clint Bowyer.
  • I’d argue Blaney gives the best chance to give NASCAR a little outside momentum. His social media roasts with best friend Bubba Wallace are genuinely funny, breaking away from the corporate type of NASCAR personality fans struggle to identify with. He’s a Star Wars fanatic who used to host his own podcast and has a long list of interests outside racing. Expect a post-race party of epic proportions with several of his peers sticking around; the racetrack will be lucky to survive the night.
  • Turning 30 this offseason, Blaney may be finally giving Joey Logano (33) a run for his money as top dog at Team Penske, a true in-house rival two years after Brad Keselowski’s departure. Holding the title of the last two Cup champions, you could argue both men haven’t reached their peak.
  • Roger Penske would one-up Rick Hendrick in a down year for Ford, winning back-to-back Cup titles and three of the last six (Logano also won in 2018). The organization would also reassert itself after RFK Racing challenged its place at the top of the hierarchy with a dominant summer and strong playoff performances from Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher.

If Kyle Larson Wins …

  • Two Cup titles in three seasons will leave him the most dominant driver in the sport. Assuming Larson wins Phoenix in this scenario, the stats are pretty unreal in the sport’s playoff era: 18 wins, 47 top-five finishes and well over 4,000 laps led since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021.
  • Larson’s a close second behind Blaney in giving the sport outside momentum, especially with him set to pop up elsewhere in 2024 with an Indianapolis 500 crossover attempt. Larson differs in that he lives and breathes racing 24/7, but that schedule now comes with added clout. He’s also making a splash behind the scenes on the dirt circuit, purchasing sprint car racing’s All Star Circuit of Champions to give him some added visibility. It’s an incredible comeback in racing respect just three years after a racial slur got him fired from Chip Ganassi Racing.
  • Wreckers or checkers can work in a postseason format where one win means you advance to the next round. Larson’s championship this season would come with eight DNFs, all for crashes; that would be the most since Darrell Waltrip in 1982. None of those incidents, many of which ruffled feathers inside the garage, ultimately damaged Larson’s march to the title.
  • Hendrick will be challenged to keep his “all four teams are created equal” mantra intact when one driver has this sustained run of success. Will William Byron, Elliott and Alex Bowman feel they’ll always be on the short end of the stick?

If William Byron Wins …

  • His long-awaited transition from promising young talent to superstar will be complete. Byron is in his sixth season driving Hendrick’s No. 24 Jeff Gordon made famous, and a title would be the first for that car since Gordon drove it in 2001. He’s already earned more victories (six) this season than the entire rest of his Cup career combined.
  • At age 25, Byron would be the youngest champion since Gordon in 1995 for a sport seeking a younger demographic. HMS is known for putting a lid on personality in public but we’ve seen Byron take some steps outside the box as of late. The least followed of the HMS Cup quartet on X, will a championship encourage him to come out of his shell even more?
  • He’ll be the first driver to sweep both the spring and fall races at Phoenix since the championship race moved there in 2020.
  • Byron’s crew chief Rudy Fugle, a Craftsman Truck Series transplant, would complete the job seven-time champion Chad Knaus couldn’t with this youngster: earn a Cup Series title.
  • Rick Hendrick would have a far better argument for parity within his organization. Larson won the title in 2021, followed by a dominant Elliott regular season and Championship 4 appearance in 2022. Byron’s success in 2023 would give real credence to all four HMS teams working together and giving everyone an chance to win.
  • It’ll be really awkward for Ryan Blaney at Thanksgiving? Byron is the longtime boyfriend of Ryan’s sister, Erin, whose allegiance will be torn this championship Sunday.
See also
William Byron Overcomes Bad Day To Make Championship 4

If Christopher Bell Wins …

  • It’s hard to argue about a changing of the guard at Joe Gibbs Racing. Bell would end 2023 with two Championship 4 appearances and a Cup title. The rest of JGR, including 40-somethings Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., have zero of either in the past two seasons.
  • At age 29, Bell would provide much-needed stability and direction within a four-car organization that can count the years left for the Hamlin-Truex duo on one hand. Rookie Ty Gibbs had a solid season for the family, but it’s early yet; the jury is still out on his Cup trajectory.
  • It would also reassert JGR’s championship presence within the Big Three teams. Penske and Hendrick have won the last three Cup titles; JGR’s last was with Kyle Busch in 2019, who has since departed the organization.
  • Bell would add an important milestone in a budding Cup rivalry with dirt rival Larson. Larson has outgunned Bell in wins since 2021 (17 to six entering Phoenix) but Bell has more poles and better consistency. He’d vault to the top of the Toyota pecking order, adding fire to a juicy Chevrolet-Toyota conflict for years to come.
  • Talk about peaking at the right time: Bell has led 340 of his 599 laps this season (56%) in the last nine races alone. Not the best argument for the regular season system where once a win gets you in, the rest of the spring and summer could be used as a long-term testing session.
  • The fans would yawn. That’s nothing against Bell as a racer, but it’s true. A soft-spoken 28-year-old, Bell has just 89,000 followers on X; mid-tier contemporaries like Corey LaJoie and Chase Briscoe have more. Bell is well-respected for racing clean, but that style, combined with an unassuming personality, isn’t the recipe for standing out off-track in 2023.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • Don’t count out Kevin Harvick winning Phoenix at a track where he’s had more success (nine wins) than anyone else. Stewart-Haas Racing showed a spark at Martinsville Speedway, and everyone there is highly motivated to send their top driver out on a high note.
  • Harvick hasn’t always been the easiest driver to deal with in terms of the media. He’s also not afraid to call people out and hold them accountable for their mistakes (a good thing sometimes, even speaking as someone who’s been on the receiving end of that). It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the transition next year when he becomes one of us. I’m looking forward to him learning exactly how the other side lives. And as a driver? What an incredible career of lifting up two different organizations at crucial points in the sport’s history.
  • No upsets in the Championship 4 this year? Across all three of NASCAR’s top series, Blaney is the only driver to make the finals who would be outside of the top five in points without a playoff. And the three-win Blaney is far from a slouch; he’d be sitting sixth.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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janice

i’d like harvick to win at phoenix and blaney to win the championship. harvick was king of phoenix. it would be a fitting end to his career to go out with a win there.

blaney, i just think of his dad and can only imagine how the blaney family feels going into phoenix. hopefully ryan can focus and avoid the trash talking and over hype of the race and championship.

wildcats2016

Janice, I’m with you. I’d like to see Ryan Blaney win the championship. I always enjoyed watching his dad race and it would be such a wonderful moment. I know that it may not be one of BZF’s “game 7” moments but it would be a nice one for the Blaney family and for many fans.

I could certainly live with Harvick winning at Phoenix. At times he’s been a jerk but most of the time, that’s been an honest reaction. Totally different from the constant whining that Diva Hamlin produces every week and he’s a huge jerk to everyone.

John

Phoenix: Harvick wins the race, Blaney the championship!
Second scenario: Bell wins.
Third scenario: Larson wins.

Tired of seeing that stupid big hat.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR won’t let Harvick win. They will guarantee it will be one of the four. They will lead most of the event and the rest of the field might as well be in their own event.

Bill B

You can take that to the bank. NASCAR doesn’t want the casual fan to see someone be considered champion without winning the Super Bowl,,,, er, I mean race. It’s just not a good look.
With that said, I’d welcome it if anyone beside one of the “immaculate four”.
But it won’t.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

It wouldn’t surprise me if the four crashed out early and the event was called due to some kind of “catastrophe” in scoring. They couldn’t find Tim and Marion Hudson when they are needed.

Ellenjay

If I remember, the year Tony won over Carl, they were both able to come from the back of the pack to the front at Homestead more than once after pit stops.
Back when it was full season champion, you could celebrate your favorite driver for a month or so as champ. Nowadays I have to check to remember who won it last sometimes.

Bill B

My memory of that Tony vs Carl battle for the championship is very different. As I remember it, starting with about 4 races to go, most of the field was getting out of their way because everyone else was pretty much out of it. It’s easy to come from the back to the front several times at any track when the rest of the drivers get out of your way.

Last edited 5 months ago by Bill B
Echo

Bell/Larson , if I’m a sponsor I want my car in victory lane. Poles and consistency don’t count unless your Ryan Newman in his rookie year.

Echo

Larson made a national name for himself on dirt long before Chip signed him. The year off from Cup took his legendary dirt prowess to an unbelievable high. And Larson credits Bell for forcing him to become a better racer. The pecking order at HMS starts with Larson at the top.

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