Ryan Blaney earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship after dominating the closing stage and passing Kyle Larson late to finish second on the track, first among the Championship 4 contenders. Larson finished third, William Byron finished fourth, and Christopher Bell did not finish after an accident in the second stage.
Blaney’s triumph marks back-to-back NASCAR championships for owner Roger Penske, a first for the legendary owner.
The checkered flag of this race also marked the end of the season for all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, in which Penske’s manufacturer, Ford, also made its own history by winning the driver’s championship in all three series.
What Really Happened
Championship Weekend came to a close with a solid, no-nonsense race at the much-criticized Phoenix Raceway. The Cup Series season finale saw intense battles between championship contenders and the rest of the field that remained clean, a stark contrast from what fans witnessed on Friday night at the same venue.
Unfortunately, the Truck Series race devolved into a wreck-fest for the championship after Carson Hocevar spun fellow contender Corey Heim. To that point, Heim showed he had the fastest truck of the four championship contenders. However, he had to restart at the back of the field. Even worse, Hocevar self-penalized, dropping back to 18th.
The black eye for Hocevar soon disappeared when Heim ran Hocevar into the wall with two laps to go. To end the series championship we had not one, not two, not even three, but four overtime finishes.
The finish left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Well, except for Ben Rhodes.
The race ending looked very bad, both for the series and for NASCAR as a whole. It also ignited a firestorm of frustration towards the championship format.
I understand NASCAR fans show nostalgia for the Winston Cup-era points system, but I’m here to say one thing: Pump the brakes. To start, let’s evaluate the weekend as a whole.
The 2023 NASCAR Championship Weekend brought out the best and the worst championship outcomes under the current playoff format.
In the Cup Series, Blaney’s playoff hot streak resulted in winning the championship, somewhat reminiscent of Tony Stewart’s 2011 run in the Chase.
Though the Xfinity Series race went to overtime (which is a less-than-ideal way to crown a champion), the drivers raced clean over the final laps. For a moment, the Championship 4 even raced four-wide.
Yes, the truck race was ugly. But that series has put out equal crash-fests and races for a few years now as drivers don’t race with the same respect they used to.
Two of the three championship races showed solid action. And while the yearly debate rises about whether or not the champion “deserved” to take the season crown, we may have to live with this format for a while.
Simply stated, NASCAR cannot afford to consistently change the points format.
Since the end of the 2003 season, the NASCAR points structure and postseason has changed six times in the last 20 years. That’s averaging one change every three and a half years.
Upon a deeper dive, the NASCAR points system changed nine times in its first 25 years. The pre-Chase system had the longest tenure, running from 1975 to 2003.
With the arrival of offseason, everyone will offer their input on what NASCAR needs to evaluate going forward. Well, here is my two cents.
Motorsports points systems have always been difficult to explain to non-fans. Looking at a wins-loss record is easier to understand, compared to awarding points based on performance in an event.
A lingering complaint holds that the championship format stands as difficult to explain. Well, an ever-changing system only exacerbates that issue.
NASCAR needs to stick to a system for more than 10 years, maybe even more than 20, and the current system might be the best version of the playoffs NASCAR is going to get.
The playoff system is far from perfect, but that’s how playoffs go. I understand motorsport fans hate comparisons to stick-and-ball sports, but every type of playoff has its pitfalls and its critics.
The NBA and NFL playoffs include too many teams. The NCAA Tournament needs to add teams. The high seeds in the MLB playoffs have too much time off. The CFP Committee never chooses the right teams, and some even miss the BCS Championship days.
Yes, the NASCAR Playoffs have its drawbacks, but I could also write a defense of how NASCAR’s tweaks have perfected this version.
But that’s for another article.
Longtime fans will always clamor for the days of old. As NASCAR continues to gain new fans who have time to understand and get used to the playoffs, the old systems may eventually rest in peace in the past.
Maybe one day NASCAR will decide to further adjust the playoff system or scrap it entirely. If that occurs, so be it. But we can’t keep changing the system.
Who Stood Out
Entering the weekend, many looked to Blaney as a favorite, citing his statistics at the track in recent races and his October hot streak. And the driver of the No. 12 did not disappoint.
Blaney showed long run speed early, and he made his first pass for the championship lead in stage two, even if it only lasted a few laps. Though Byron held off his proverbial brother-in-law to end the middle stage, Blaney established his lead over the championship contenders in the final stage.
He made the pass on Larson look easy on the final run, something very difficult to do.
Every year since 2014, fans wonder if a non-playoff driver can triumph over the Championship 4. Few expected Ross Chastain to be the first to defeat the eventual champion.
The Melon Man showed speed early in the race, and while it seemed Blaney had a faster car, Chastain ignored the yellow banner and fought tooth and nail with his Ford foe.
Blaney passed Chastain, who immediately went back after Blaney and returned to the point. Aided by a late caution, Chastain pulled away from the championship battle to take the race win. Unfortunately for us, we only caught a glimpse of the dual burnouts, and also totally missed the melon smash.
Who Fell Flat
During practice, Bell showed speed comparable to Blaney. Entering the weekend, Bell felt confident that Toyota’s lack of speed at Phoenix in 2022 would not transfer, and the No. 20 team would contend for the championship.
Bell started the race outside the top 10 and quickly made his way through the field, following Blaney. However, the driver showed concern with his brakes during stage two, and his worries turned into a problem when the brake rotor exploded at the end of the backstretch.
The issue ended Bell’s race, causing the first DNF for a Championship 4 contender since Carl Edwards’ late crash in 2016.
Outside of the Championship 4, Chase Elliott seemed absent all weekend. From contending for the championship in Phoenix last year, to getting lapped this year, Elliott’s no good, very bad season has ended, and the 2020 series champ can put his misfortunes in the rearview mirror.
Better Than Last Time?
Maybe the championship battle influenced my view, but this race certainly seemed like the best Next Gen race we have seen at Phoenix so far. With the lack of traction compound on the surface and a tire with more falloff, Phoenix looked like a multi-groove race track once again.
Some drivers found speed on the outside line on both ends of the race track, even by the wall at times. Others rolled the apron in the first two corners and still made plenty of speed down there.
Cars ran side-by-side for laps on in, and the race seemed to have a number of comers and goers.
The Championship 4 raced each other hard, but the non-playoff drivers also mixed it up with the contenders, resulting in some tense battles.
This all comes from perspective of what the broadcast showed, and it looked like drivers still had a very hard time passing one another at points in the race.
However, the 2022 championship race and the spring race in 2023 set the bar very low.
Paint Scheme of the Race
In the midst of the Next Gen car sounds echoing around the racetrack, I believe I heard the familiar sounds of two Star Wars crafts in a dogfight. Indeed, an X-Wing and TIE Fighter somehow got loose on the racing surface of Phoenix Raceway, as Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick battled the field in their Star Wars-themed racecars.
In addition to the iconic wraps, the pilots of the two 23XI Racing crafts had the uniforms and cast of characters to match.
Kevin Harvick’s final paint scheme deserves a nod as well, as his legendary career officially ended with a final top-10 finish. I did feel slight disappointment, though, as we saw Harvick’s name slapped on the hood in 2019, but still, this served as a solid tribute.
At this moment, drivers enjoy the race home and into the offseason. Teams will get to work, beginning preparation for the 2024 season. Sometime between now and Daytona, a jolly red fellow might deliver gifts to the children of the world.
The NASCAR Cup Series will return to action in the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. The race runs on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Two weeks later, the 2024 chase for the championship officially begins on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m. ET with the Daytona 500.
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