Something unprecedented happened in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (Nov. 5). For the first time in the history of the elimination-style playoffs, the champion did not win the race. Ryan Blaney emerged as the victor among the Championship 4 to capture his first Cup Series title.
But when the final checkered flag of the season fell, Blaney ran second to Ross Chastain. Chastain had been knocked out of the playoffs during the Round of 12, but he and Trackhouse Racing scored one final victory together in 2023.
A Chastain win and a Blaney championship is a fitting end to this season when you consider where both drivers were one year ago. In last season’s championship race, Blaney appeared to have a car capable of winning during the final green flag run. Yet he had been eliminated from title contention the previous week, and teammate Joey Logano was leading the race. With Logano on the cusp of his second championship, team owner Roger Penske ordered Blaney to serve as wingman for the No. 22. Blaney played the good soldier as Logano secured the victory and the title.
The driver attempting to track down the two Team Penske Fords was Chastain. He was also a title contender, enjoying a breakout campaign in his first season with Trackhouse. As the laps ticked away, it appeared that Chastain had fallen too far back to catch Logano and Blaney, but remember that this race happened a week after Chastain’s Hail Melon at Martinsville Speedway. The No. 1 team had pulled off the seemingly impossible before, and Penske was in no mood to take chances.
No doubt that 2022 ended on a frustrating note for Blaney, but in the season that followed, he took a path to the championship very similar to Logano’s a year prior. After an up-and-down start, Logano scored two wins in the late spring, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the playoffs. Once there, the No. 22 team got better every week, winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to clinch a championship round berth and then putting on a dominant performance at Phoenix to seal the victory.
Likewise, Blaney did not look like a title contender early in 2023. Hendrick Motorsports flexed the most muscle during the first part of the season. Blaney was fighting to snap a long winless streak, dating back to the summer of 2021. He did so, emerging victorious in the Coca-Cola 600. That would be his only win of the regular season, but there was little doubt from that point forward that he would be among the 16 playoff drivers.
Even when the postseason started, it was not obvious that Blaney was on course for the championship race. He began the second round of the playoffs below the cut line, and a poor result at Texas Motor Speedway put the No. 12 team at serious risk of elimination.
Yet for the last six races of the season, Blaney stepped up in a big way. He won a nailbiter at Talladega Superspeedway, punching his ticket to the Round of 8. There, he scored three finishes of sixth or better. The most important was a victory at Martinsville, which guaranteed him a spot in the championship event.
Not only did Blaney outgun the Hendrick drivers at The Paperclip, but his win also contributed to the eliminations of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., two championship hopefuls who have a combined eight wins at Martinsville. And while Blaney was not dominant at Phoenix, he was fastest when it counted, passing fellow title contender Kyle Larson with 20 laps to go after losing ground to Larson in the pits. Just like Logano last year, peaking at the right time made all the difference for Blaney.
So, if the 2022 championship race was a hint at things to come for Blaney, could Sunday’s race be foreshadowing Chastain’s future? Some fans might not want to consider him a championship favorite in 2024 since this year was not as strong as 2022. Although Chastain ends this season with the same number of wins as last year (2), he scored 10 top fives compared to 15 in 2022, and 14 top 10s compared to 21 a year ago. Given how much speed Trackhouse had in 2022 and the growth it experienced as an organization, it is not surprising that it regressed a bit this year.
What did not change this season is Chastain’s knack for getting around Phoenix. He earned second and third-place finishes there in 2022, following that up with a win on Sunday. This season’s spring race at Phoenix did not end well for Chastain when a shoving match with Hamlin dropped them both outside the top 20 in the final laps. Otherwise, Chastain and Trackhouse clearly have something figured out at Phoenix.
All the pieces are in place for the No. 1 team to be number one in 2024. It has already been to the final round of the postseason before, and it knows how to step up its game when the championship is on the line. Chastain and his team just need to have a bit more consistency. That way, bad finishes like the one Chastain had at Talladega last month will not be a fatal blow to his championship hopes. If Chastain comes back to Phoenix as a championship contender a year from now, the other three drivers should be very nervous.
Until all the drivers and teams reassemble at the LA Coliseum in February, the accolades go to Blaney. His championship is the realization of the potential that Penske and many others have seen in him for years. But if last year’s title race was a preview of what Blaney would accomplish in 2023, perhaps this year’s race is a teaser for what’s in store for Chastain. Blaney is on top of the NASCAR mountain right now, but Chastain is certainly among the drivers climbing toward the summit.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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