Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Everywhere you looked, history was made at Phoenix Raceway as NASCAR 2023 came to an end. There was a new champion, a streak extended one more time … and for the first time since the playoff era began in 2014, a race winner who didn’t also win the title.
That last one wasn’t uncommon in the days before the current title format. It was rarer during the Chase era for the champion to win in the final race, but on Sunday, Ross Chastain broke through with a convincing victory in the title race, leading a race-high 157 of 312 laps and taking the checkers by 1.23 seconds over runner-up and 2023 Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney.
Chastain easily had the best car in the race’s second half and was fast on both restarts and longer runs. He charged to the lead on the final restart, briefly battling Kyle Larson as well as Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones, both of whom had taken just two tires under caution. From there, he romped through the final laps.
Blaney entered the pits on the final stop in second and lost three positions, one of them to Larson. There was a time in the not-too-distant past that that small stroke of bad luck might have upended a good run for Blaney. But not this time.
As Larson was locked in a battle for the top spot, Blaney, in a car that he’d struggled with early, cleared William Byron, and from there, set his sights on Larson. Blaney used a couple of bold moves to catch Larson, and then the two raced door-to-door for the position, sometimes so close together a crash seemed imminent.
Once Blaney was able to clear Larson, though, it was clear that the No. 12 had kept up with the track better than the other contenders, and once Blaney passed Larson, he was able to drive away from him.
Just before the caution, Blaney had been racing Chastain for the race lead, who forced him into a couple of mistakes that had allowed others to close the gap. Learning from his mistakes, Blaney ran his own race in the closing laps, conceding the win to Chastain but claiming his first Cup Series title.
A third-generation racer, Blaney, who hails from High Point, North Carolina, the first driver from NASCAR’s adopted home state to win a title in the 21st century. The last native of the Tar Heel State to hoist the trophy was Dale Jarrett in 1999.
And don’t forget Kevin Harvick. Even as Blaney’s star was rising, the sun was setting on Harvick’s career. Even in his final race, Harvick, who finished seventh, etched his name into the record books one last time. Harvick is the all-time Phoenix Raceway leader in wins (9), top fives (26), top 10s (31) and laps led (17. Sunday was Harvick’s 31st top 10 at the track, and, as if that wasn’t enough, it was his 21st top-10 finish in a row at Phoenix. It will be a long time before another driver tops all of Harvick’s Phoenix numbers, and it probably won’t be accomplished by a single driver.
Harvick leaves the sport as the driver who gave a ray of light in the dark days after Dale Earnhardt’s death when he won in Earnhardt’s former car just weeks later. Never content to race in Earnhardt’s shadow, Harvick created his own Hall of Fame career, with 60 Cup wins (10th all-time, with some of them pulled off in cars that shouldn’t have won) and the 2014 Cup title. Harvick became a driver known for carrying his cars, taking them to the finishes they were capable of and higher. He’ll move to the FOX broadcast booth in 2024. It doesn’t seem like his first win was that long ago.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
The youth movement has been strong in the Cup Series over the last couple of years. Larson, in his 10th full-time season in 2023, has the longest Cup tenure of any of the four drivers who duked it out for this year’s title. One former champion retired, another put the decision off another year.
As NASCAR enters a new era, which driver will become the face of the sport, both in the record books and the headlines?
Will someone else enter the ring? Bell is on the cusp. So is Chastain, whose story is perhaps the most compelling.
Time marches on, and NASCAR has seen the guard changing in recent years. But with plenty of young talent in the Cup Series now and more on the way up the future is bright on the talent front.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
The focus all day was on the championship four. Pole winner William Byron had the best car among the contenders for the first 200 miles of the race, easily winning stage one, but as the laps ticked down, Byron’s No. 24 seemed to lose its edge as the handling faded just a bit. The final restart put Byron, Blaney and Larson in position to race all out for the title, but Byron’s car fell off first, with a fourth-place finish for the No. 24.
Christopher Bell was the first casualty among the contenders. He worked his way toward the top five after starting 12th, but a brake failure on lap 108 sent Bell home early and out of title contention this year. Even then, Bell showed the kind of driver he is, letting the car impact the wall when the issue happened instead of making the situation worse by trying to correct an unavoidable situation. That kind of smart driving will give Bell his chance at a title.
Kyle Larson had a decent top-five car … but that wasn’t quite enough. The only driver in the final three not to lead a lap, Larson didn’t quite have enough to hold off Blaney on the final run of the day.
That didn’t mean Larson didn’t put up a fight, and the pair put on a show fighting for what was ultimately the championship. Larson drove Blaney as hard as he could, but, like his competitor, raced as clean as could be in a fantastic battle until Blaney was able to squeeze by and draw away in a car that simply had more speed at that point in the race. Larson finished third, runner-up in points.
When… was the moment of truth?
Blaney won the title for two reasons. First off, when his car wasn’t quite as good as his three competitors off the truck, neither Blaney nor his team let that become a distraction. They had speed, but the handling needed tweaks.
It would be very easy for a team in that position early to go off the rails — it’s happened to teams before. It’s tempting to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the car, but instead of a Hail Mary approach, the team stayed calm and made adjustments.
By the end of the race, Blaney had the fastest car among the contenders.
But he still had to drive it. Before the caution flew for Busch’s spin, Blaney had been running second and had caught Chastain. In trying to pass Chastain, Blaney made a couple of mistakes, allowing Martin Truex Jr. to join the party, and, more critically, for Larson to close on him. Blaney righted his car and continued, but the situation could have rattled him.
Instead, Blaney learned from his mistakes, no doubt with the right words in his ear from his spotter and crew chief, and on the final restart, when he got around Larson, he let Chastain control the race. Had Blaney caught and raced Chastain, it would certainly have given Larson an opportunity to at least make a run at him. Instead, Blaney raced the track and the title, and in the end, won the war by conceding the battle.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It may be officially the offseason, but there is still plenty to be settled over the winter. While there has been speculation that Noah Gragson will take over the Stewart-Haas No. 10 for the retiring Aric Almirola, where does that leave newly crowned Xfinity champion Cole Custer? While his father has been instrumental in keeping him in the SHR fold, could we see Custer elsewhere in 2024 if there’s no Cup avenue for him with the organization?
Other drivers with 2024 plans not yet secured and/or announced include AJ Allmendinger, who won at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course in October and Ty Dillon, who is being replaced by Carson Hocevar at Spire Motorsports
How… long until the engines roar to life?
As long as the season can sometimes seem, the offseason, which looks impossibly short during the grind, suddenly seems even longer.
Fans no longer anticipate the signs that spring will, indeed come, the annual media tour and January testing at Daytona, as those are now memories, relics of a different time. Hall of Fame inductions in January highlight NASCAR’s history, but, barring a test for improvements to the Next Gen, the engines will remain silent until February, when they once again roar to life.
I’ll be ready for it. Catch you on the flip side, race fans.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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