Ryan Blaney won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway ahead of Kyle Larson and William Byron after passing Larson for second place with 20 laps to go.
Blaney and Larson engaged in a fierce battle for second as race-winner Ross Chastain drove away from both of them. Blaney stalked Larson for multiple laps before finally clearing the 2021 champion and gradually building a gap.
The race was the first time since NASCAR instituted its winner-take-all final race championship format in 2014 that the winner of the final race of the season was not a driver racing for the title. The circumstance resulted in dueling burnouts at the finish line as Chastain celebrated the race win and Blaney celebrated the first Cup Series title of his career.
Blaney, 29, was ahead of both Larson and Byron when a caution came out on lap 274 of the 312-lap race for Kyle Busch’s spin. Blaney entered pit road in second and exited in sixth after Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin each took two tires on pit road and Larson and Byron had faster pit stops than Blaney's.
But Blaney got past Byron quickly on the restart and set his sights on Larson as Hamlin faded from view.
Blaney was racing Larson, Byron and Christopher Bell for the title on Sunday. While Larson and Byron ran in the top 10 along with Blaney for the entirety of the second and third stages, Bell didn't make it to the finish. His race ended in the second stage when his right-front brake rotor exploded and his car hit the wall.
The championship is the second straight for Team Penske after Joey Logano won his second career title in 2022.
Blaney won two playoff races
Blaney clinched a spot in the playoffs with a win in the Coca-Cola 600 in May and had a summer with more downs than ups. Blaney didn’t finish in the top five over the final 12 races of the regular season and had five finishes of 30th or worse between his win and the start of the playoffs.
Something clicked in the postseason, however, especially in the final six races. Blaney crashed out of the fourth race of the playoffs at Texas and followed it up with a win at Talladega that advanced him to the third round. He then finished sixth and second in the first two races of the third round before leading 145 laps and winning at Martinsville to ensure a spot in the Championship 4.
"You never want to count yourself out," Blaney said. "I mean, I think in the summer we were struggling a little bit. But we never gave up. We just went to work. I've said that all week, like, this group goes to work and they figure out problems. That's why they're such an amazing group to be with, with the Team Penske folks, 'cause they just put their head down and do the work, accept the challenge.
"That's what we did. It's not happenstance we started running good through the playoffs. It was a lot of hard work by a lot of amazing men and women at the shop. I can't thank them enough for that."
Blaney had the best car of any title contender over the second half of the race on Sunday, too. Byron led the first 92 laps but led just three laps the rest of the race. Larson never led a lap and Blaney simply moved his way to the front.
Blaney's frustration with Chastain
Blaney gapped Larson and Byron by three seconds while running second to Chastain with more than 50 laps to go and appeared to have a much faster car than Chastain did.
However, Blaney couldn’t get past Chastain and was getting agitated about the way Chastain was taking his line away. At one point, NBC’s in-car camera showed Blaney giving Chastain the middle finger and a short time later Blaney used his front bumper to try to move Chastain out of the way.
The hard racing between the two let Martin Truex Jr. slip past Blaney into second and allowed Larson and Byron to close the gap to Blaney for the championship. Had Busch not spun, it could have still been a fascinating finish with Blaney looking to get past Chastain as Larson and Byron chased him.
Kevin Harvick caps his career with a 7th-place run
Kevin Harvick climbed from a NASCAR Cup Series car for the final time after finishing seventh on Sunday.
Harvick led twice for a total 23 laps and had a top-10 car all day. Had he won, he would have been the first driver to ever win in his final Cup Series start.
The 47-year-old has been the last full-time driver remaining who raced when it was the Winston Cup Series in the early 2000s. Harvick was thrust into the Cup Series unexpectedly the week after Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 and he morphed into one of the most respected veterans in NASCAR for his driving ability and his insight.
Harvick is a surefire NASCAR Hall of Famer with 60 wins in 826 starts and the 2014 Cup Series title. Harvick finished in the top 10 in a remarkable 443 of his 826 races from 2001-23 and his excellence in the 2010s is deserving of multiple titles.
After moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick won 37 races over an eight-year stretch through 2021 and finished in the top five of the points standings in five straight seasons. His best non-title season came in 2020 when he won nine races and had 20 top-five finishes in 36 starts.
1. Ross Chastain
2. Ryan Blaney
3. Kyle Larson
4. William Byron
5. Chris Buescher
6. Martin Truex Jr.
7. Kevin Harvick
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Michael McDowell
10. Bubba Wallace
11. Daniel Suarez
12. Austin Dillon
13. Aric Almirola
14. Ryan Preece
15. Brad Keselowski
16. Chase Elliott
17. Alex Bowman
18. Joey Logano
19. Carson Hocevar
20. Erik Jones
21. Ty Gibbs
22. Tyler Reddick
23. Chase Briscoe
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Kyle Busch
26. Harrison Burton
27. JJ Yeley
28. Ty Dillon
29. Justin Haley
30. Todd Gilliland
31. Corey LaJoie
32. AJ Allmendinger
33. BJ McLeod
34. Ryan Newman
35. Austin Cindric
36. Christopher Bell