NASCAR defends no-drama finale, vows to promote young stars

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- NASCAR on Friday dismissed the sentiment that this weekend's championship finale lacks the pizzazz and star power of a major event.

The final four -- Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney and William Byron -- is the youngest since the winner-take-all format began in 2014, and Larson is the only previous Cup Series champion among the contenders.

Larson and Bell are longtime dirt track rivals but have settled any simmering disputes. Byron and Blaney have a personal connection because Byron is dating Blaney's younger sister. The drivers have acknowledged Sunday's showdown at Phoenix Raceway lacks the hype of years past, but NASCAR pushed back as the weekend arrived.

"We have a playoff system that I believe is the toughest in sports," NASCAR president Steve Phelps said. "Think about the style of racing that we have and the incredible competition that we have on the racetrack and the variety that our drivers had to go through.

"They raced on dirt. They raced on concrete. They raced on asphalt. They raced on short tracks, street courses, road courses, superspeedways," Phelps continued. "Is there another racing series on the planet that can say that? I don't think there is. We've got the best racing in the world and I think it's the most competitive racing in the world, and when we crown that champion on Sunday, that champion is going to be very deserving."

Nobody is questioning the versatility required over NASCAR's 38-race season, which began this year with an exhibition at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February.

Still, Blaney lamented that the final four had "no bad blood, no rivalry, no one's mad at each other in this one." Retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., part of NBC's broadcast team for the race, said the final four were "just not very dynamic or aggressive."

This year's playoff field, with an average age of 28 with Larson at 31 the oldest, is missing five-time most popular driver Chase Elliott. Cup champions Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were all eliminated early, young fan favorites Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace were knocked out, and regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. and divisive personality Denny Hamlin fell short last week.

The four left standing are soft-spoken drivers who, with the exception of Larson in 2021, have never won anything as big as a Cup title. Bell is back in the championship race for the second consecutive year, while Blaney and Byron are making their first appearances.

Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, called Larson and Bell two of the best racers in the world and praised the final four for "what they do to represent our sport."

"Everyone is not going to be a certain personality that drives things," O'Donnell said. "We're not going to be a soap opera. We're a sport that's going to go out there to race and showcase the talent of our athletes. With that will come personality. With that will come some storytelling."

O'Donnell acknowledged NASCAR could do more for its young stars and said industry leaders are actively discussing increased engagement and storytelling. NASCAR has an agreement with Netflix for a docuseries about this year's 10-race playoffs that will air in early 2024.

Maybe it will be spectacular and drive interest to the dizzying heights "Drive To Survive" has taken Formula One in North America.

"We've talked about [how] it's on everybody, race teams, the tracks, what we're doing at the track to showcase our drivers," O'Donnell said. "Going back a little bit old-school, some of the things we used to have -- the stages at tracks, autograph sessions, things we may have gotten away from. Getting the drivers with their helmets off, getting that personality out there a little bit more.

"I think we have a big opportunity as a sport because we have a crop of young drivers for fans to come in and embrace," he added. "Now we have to do the job, as do they, to say, 'Hey, come root for me, come along for the ride.' It's a lot of young drivers that we need to have fans embrace and latch onto and show them why."