It’s quiet tonight.
The last engine has fallen silent. The last fan has looked back longingly at the track as they drive away.
The end of the season is always a time of reflection. There’s a newly-crowned champion in all of NASCAR’s national series; this year, two of them are first-time champions, the third a popular second-time winner.
The silence is always a surprise. After 20 years of writing about this sport, seeing people come and go and races won and lost, I’m always caught by surprise by the end of the season. It’s not that I don’t know it’s coming, exactly, just that it always comes so fast. Even with the warning of the playoffs, it comes so fast. There are still 10 races left, but then it’s just five and three and one and finally none.
And no matter how the season has gone, how easy it has been to criticize a rule or a call or a momentary decision on the track, no matter how sometimes we all lose sight of what’s right, the end always feels bittersweet.
The road from Daytona to Phoenix is long and winding. Sometimes you get to stop and greet an old friend and pick up where you left off a year ago, a lifetime ago. Sometimes there are storms on the horizon, dark and ominous, but when the skies clear, there’s a rainbow leading you down the highway to the next stop.
This year, the road feels like it ended where it should have. Ryan Blaney is good for the sport. He’s personable and outgoing. At age 29, younger fans can relate to him. Older fans can, too, because Blaney is a third-generation racer. His father, Dave, made the jump to NASCAR from sprint cars but never found the same success his son has found in these cars.
But Dave Blaney was the kind of driver fans pulled for because he’d raced his way to the top in sprint cars, but took his lumps in NASCAR and raced hard every week.
Ryan Blaney is the same type of driver. Sure, he had opportunities, but he’s never acted like anyone owes him anything. He’s taken his lumps, toiled through periods of luck so bad he’d have probably preferred that Lady Luck just leave him alone.
Blaney was still in high school when he first raced on a national level in NASCAR. He grew up at the track, learned to race hard and to race others the way they raced him. He saw Dave come close to victory in the NASCAR Cup Series but never quite taste it.
The Ohio native’s first Cup win came only after a number of disappointments, races when he had speed but something went wrong. Sometimes he and his team didn’t execute, sure. That happens to every driver when the speed isn’t quite there. Other near misses were simply races where luck wasn’t on Blaney’s side. Sure, you make your own luck in racing, but sometimes you do everything right only to have something go wrong: an untimely spin by someone else, a mechanical failure, weather that just didn’t cooperate. It’s a million times easier to lose a race than it is to win one.
This year only really felt like Blaney’s year in the last few weeks, when he and his team did just about everything right. His win at Martinsville Speedway cemented his chances at the title, but really, the second half of the playoffs was exactly the right time to be on a hot streak, and the No. 12 team found that magic at the perfect moment.
And really, Blaney is the perfect champion for the sport right now. The most outgoing of the four finalists in interviews and on social media, Blaney manages to walk the fine line of not being too vanilla while still representing his team and sponsors well. He’s the Star Wars nerd who’s not afraid to admit it and has the money to make his hobby really, really cool (he’s got a huge Dath Vader tattoo on his thigh, which got shown off particularly well when he dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween, complete with metal bikini). He’s already eyeballing some vintage memorabilia with his champion’s winnings.
Blaney has been lucky enough to come through the ranks with two of his best friends, Bubba Wallace and Chase Elliott, by his side, and they were among the first to congratulate him in victory lane, but the stream of drivers who stopped by says a lot about him. Kyle Larson and William Byron both offered their congratulations and thanked Blaney for the way he raced them — it was fun, they all agreed.
If the sport needed an everyday champion, they got him in Blaney.
But even as NASCAR crowned a young champion for the first time, another one climbed out of his racecar for the last time. Two of them, actually, because Aric Almirola joins Kevin Harvick in retirement from full-time racing.
Harvick, as volatile and downright infuriating as he could be at times when he was younger and dumber, exits as one of the best ever to strap into a Cup Series car. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his 60 wins is that many of them came with a team that had fallen on harder times. Harvick gave fans and his team something to cheer about in the dark days following Dale Earnhardt’s death, taking Earnhardt’s car and team to victory lane weeks after the accident that had claimed the seven-time champion. But Richard Childress Racing didn’t race into the 21st century quite as convincingly as some other teams, and there were times when Harvick was obviously carrying his racecars.
He might have won more titles elsewhere, and his only title came after he left, but Harvick won in those RCR cars, cars that weren’t dominant like Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush Racing at the time. But Harvick took on Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth and all the rest and beat them plenty of times. If he had raced for one of the elite teams in those years, his win total could well rival Johnson’s.
Harvick never backed down from a challenge on the track, and sometimes that boiled over off it. He mellowed over time, as most do, but the competitive fire was always burning, often so bright it was enough to blind the competition just long enough for “The Closer” to sneak by for another win.
In some ways, Blaney is a little like Harvick — drivers who worked their way through the levels without shortcuts and with fiery tempers under the surface. Blaney’s a little less outwardly emotional, but that same hunger that brought Harvick success gnaws beneath the surface. Neither has ever pretended to be something he isn’t.
2023 put an exclamation point on the changing of the guard in NASCAR’s top division. Larson was the only driver in the final cut over age 30. Larson, Byron, Blaney and Christopher Bell took title chances away from veterans Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the playoffs.
Only three drivers who raced in 2023 raced in an era when the championship was won with no playoff system at all, no reset to help the future champion win it all, and among them, only Harvick was full time this year. Johnson and Ryan Newman both contended for titles before the season was divided into regular and postseasons, but neither ran full time in 2023.
But don’t say Blaney (or Harvick or Johnson or anyone who has won a title since 2004) didn’t win it fairly or isn’t a real champion. Yes, it’s hard to compare them with Earnhardt and Richard Petty and all those who came before. But they didn’t make the rules. Maybe they benefitted from them, maybe they didn’t. The whole sport would be different, but every champion won that title under the rules handed to him. Earnhardt won under a different system than some of Petty’s titles. It’s not fair to any driver to say what might have happened under a different system, because it happened under the system those drivers had. Blaney is a real champion, a worthy champion … and he’ll be a good champion.
And so the sun goes down on another race season. NASCAR’s 75th year is now a part of the same history books as its first, its 10th, its 50th. Time marches on, and the same sun will rise over a brand-new season with infinite possibilities for the men and women who strap into their racecars and dream the dreams that racers dream and maybe make them come true.
What has made racing great for 75 years and more and will make it worth watching every year still to come is the people … and the possibilities.
So then, until next time, when day breaks over a silent track and nothing but a whole season of those possibilities lies ahead. See you when the green flag flies.
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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