Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: Breaking the Championship Mold

Three cheers for Ryan Blaney, and thank god for Ross Chastain.

On Sunday (Nov. 5), Blaney ensured himself a place in stock car history and a future spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame when he won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway.

Meanwhile, 1.2 seconds ahead of him, Chastain made some history of his own and ensured himself as being the answer to a very specific trivia question years from now.

Who won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Championship race?

For nine years the answer to that question was cut-and-dry: Whoever won the championship.

See also
Couch Potato Tuesday: NBC Disrespected Ross Chastain at Phoenix

For the first decade of the elimination playoff format, it almost a formality that the majority of Championship 4 drivers would be the main players going for the race win and the title.

But on Sunday, Chastain smashed that formality like he would a watermelon.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that hard-charging Chastain — while seemingly out to lunch competition-wise in the months since he won at Nashville Superspeedway — would be the guy who’d spoil the championship party.

That was reflected in part one of his responses Sunday night about aggressively racing Blaney for the lead.

“I know he’s mad, and I don’t care. I do not care,” Chastain said. “I did not care then, I do not care now. I’m here to race him.”

What’s surprising is Chastain had to somewhat convince himself he was indeed That Guy.

On Saturday, Chastain was watching video of the previous day’s practice session when the notion of being the party crasher was introduced into his head.

“I heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. say, ‘Ross will be one (to) get up and race these guys,” recalled Chastain, who said he paused the video. “I’m like, ‘Would I do that? I don’t know. That seems kind of aggressive.'”

Chastain went back to watching the recorded broadcast.

“I didn’t really have an answer for myself,” Chastain said. “I asked myself, ‘Would I race them?’ I was like, ‘I’ll race ’em.’ [Earnhardt’s] like, ‘He’s going to race ’em aggressive, he’s going to do it. If there is anybody that will do it, he’ll do it.'”

Chastain was still “kind of undetermined” at that moment.

Then came Sunday.

“I got out there, and I was like, ‘I’m doing it, I am racing them.'”

For two hours and 52 minutes, the aggressive Chastain — the one who drew the ire of Rick Hendrick after the spring race at Darlington Raceway — was seemingly back as he led a career-best 157 laps while dueling Blaney for the top spot.

Though this time Chastain put some parameters in place for himself.

“The difference was I’m not going to use my front bumper, front fenders, side [of the car],” Chastain explained. “I’m not going to pinch them up into the wall. I didn’t mean to fence (Kyle) Larson at Darlington, but I did it. I was not going to do that. I was not going to drive into the corner.

“When [Blaney] cleared me down into [turn] 1, I’m not going to try to make it anything other than cross him over and do it clean, have leverage into [turn] 3, wrap the bottom. It worked. I was like, ‘Holy cow. He passed me, he’s faster, but I got right back by him.’ I don’t think he led the lap.”

The only time Chastain’s Chevy and Blaney’s Ford touched was when Blaney throttled his car up and gave Chastain’s rear bumper a shot.

“[Expletive] right I hit him on purpose,” Blaney said. “He blocked me on purpose 10 times. So, yeah, I hit him on purpose.

“What do you expect me to do? He’s backing me up to [Larson], and I got to go. We were just racing hard. But do I think he was over excessive on the blocks? Yes, very much so. Did I hit him? Yes, I did. That’s just part of it.”

It all made for one of the most tense Championship races in recent memory.

Sure, Blaney only needed to finish second to win the title, which he did.

See also
Up to Speed: Ryan Blaney on Top, Ross Chastain on the Rise

But it was nice reprieve from what has been a foregone conclusion for so long.

Anyway, Blaney and Chastain were able to laugh about it not long after the race.

What’s there really to complain about when you both won a trophy?

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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I was glad someone else crashed the championship party and won. Ross has torn up a lot of equipment and made some mistakes he shouldn’t have. I hope he has grown as a racer and sees that he can win races clean. It’s starting to look that way, based on his two wins in 2023. While his results were down from 2022, that looked to be more of a team issue in how they prepared the cars. Nothing stays still in racing. RFK Racing has been working hard to elevate their program. RCR is back in the mix in recent reasons. Even smaller teams like Front Row and even Spire are getting more competitive, which means other teams lose ground. But back to Phoenix, I thought both Ross and Ryan ran great races. I’m glad Ross didn’t care at that moment because it’s still a race and no one should just lay over for the guys going for the championship. You don’t want to wreck them, but you should want to beat them.

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