From crazy finishes and fisticuffs to the impending retirements of legends and the resurrection of North Wilkesboro Speedway, NASCAR's 75th year has been a season full of milestones. Now, after nine months, it is time to crown a Cup Series champion.
Stock car racing's 16 playoff participants have been pushed through a ringer of a postseason bracket, and we are now down to the Championship 4, who will race Sunday afternoon on the perfectly imperfect oval-ish 1-mile that is Phoenix Raceway. Forget all you think you know about NASCAR's admittedly complicated points system. This one is easy: The highest finisher among this quartet will be anointed as champion.
So, who are they? How did they get here? How have they fared at Phoenix in the past? What's their mindset headed into the weekend? How weird will it be when one guy running for the title is dating the little sister of one of the other guys racing for the title? Read ahead as we give you the stats, the path and a short Q&A with each member of NASCAR's Championship 4 ... four.
2023: 3 wins, 0 poles, 7 top-5s, 17 top-10s, 3 DNFs
2023 Playoffs: 2 wins, 0 poles, 3 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 DNFs
Playoff history: 7th appearance, 4 wins, 2 this year
Best championship finish: 7th, 2019 and 2021
Phoenix career stats: 15 starts, 0 wins, 6 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 2 DNFs, 11.9 average finish
ESPN: OK, first things first. You are a Star Wars nut. Quick "Ahsoka" series review?
Blaney: I loved it. It was great. It brought some nostalgia back for me too, which was good. Seeing Anakin, I was like, oh man, it was like when I was a kid.
Blaney: And he didn't invite me! He texted me and was like, "You won't believe where I am." I was like, "Dude, you couldn't just have me be on the crew, to be your social media photographer or something?"
ESPN: Well, the force was with you at Martinsville, a place you'd never won before and then you won your way into the Championship 4.
Blaney: It was special for multiple reasons. I grew up not too far from there, in High Point, North Carolina. As a kid I went there with my dad (former Cup Series driver Dave Blaney) all the time. And I drove for the Wood Brothers for a few years, who are based right there, around the corner in Stuart, Virginia. I have been so close so many times there, to finally get that win, that grandfather clock, and punch a ticket to the last four. That's dream stuff.
ESPN: This is your first time racing for the Cup, but your team, Team Penske, has literally raced for every meaningful motorsports trophy on the planet.
Blaney: It's an amazing resource. And yes, it's a team that has won everything, but here we are with a chance to do something Roger Penske has never done, and that's win back-to-back Cup titles. Earlier this year we won the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Now, a chance to join Brad [Keselowski] and Joey [Logano] as Cup champions for Roger, that's special.
ESPN: We sportswriters love to throw around the idea of pressure in the postseason ...
Blaney: That's real. I think any driver who tells you they don't feel that as the playoffs roll on, they're lying to you.
ESPN: And those who are honest will tell you it isn't being on the track as much as it is the other stuff, the unforeseen stuff if you've never been there. So, does it help relieve that for you when you can walk across the hallway and talk to the guy who won it a year ago? "Hey, Joey, what am I in for?"
Blaney: Our relationship has just gotten better and better over the years. And, you know, when he was running for one last year and I wasn't, I said, "OK, this is my job, to do the best I can to relay information, to help the overall goal of getting the team championship. Now I'm in and he's not and he's been the same way. He said, "Whatever you need."
ESPN: And Dad? Does Dave Blaney get fired up? Because, I'm going to be honest, back in the day he was the nicest guy, but man, he was hard to interview. Dude keeps it close to the vest. Will he cut loose with his boy racing for a title?
Blaney: He's a pretty quiet, reserved guy, but he does a good job of firing me up when he needs to, you know, and getting me in a confident mindset. So, I can tell even if he's not showing it to people who don't know him very well. It's like I can tell that he's excited. You get him in a room alone, he's a different person.
ESPN: One more family-related question. Your younger sister, Erin, has been dating William Byron for years. He's racing against you for the Cup on Sunday ...
Blaney: I said to her earlier this week, "Man, you're going to be conflicted!" She said to me she didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I told her she'd never hurt my feelings. I also told her, if you think about it, she has the best odds of them all. The only two people at Phoenix with a 50% chance of winning a championship will be Erin Blaney and Rick Hendrick.
2023: 2 wins, 6 poles, 10 top-5s, 19 top-10s, 3 DNFs
2023 Playoffs: 1 win, 4 poles, 4 top-5s, 6 top-10s, 0 DNFs
Playoff history: 3rd appearance, 2 wins
Best championship finish: 3rd, 2022
Phoenix career stats: 7 starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 4 top-10s, 0 DNFs, 14.4 average finish
ESPN: I remember last year we talked leading into Phoenix and you'd just won at Martinsville to make the Championship 4 for the first time. You talked about getting so emotional in the car. This time around you won a week earlier and you've experienced the championship weekend before. So, how do you feel this year?
Bell: Dude, it is just absolutely crazy. Last year our Phoenix prep was like literally 48 hours because the car has to leave early in the week to get across the country. This has already been so refreshing. I don't want to say that we were putting off Martinsville, but Phoenix was already the priority for sure. But once we get there, it's business as usual. I remember listening to certain drivers talk about how this race is a different race, and I found that very interesting because if you treat Phoenix like a different race, then that what's that saying about the other 35 races? That you don't take them as serious? You want to win Richmond 1, Dover 1, Charlotte 1, just as bad as you want to win Phoenix 2. It shouldn't be treated differently because that means you're not doing your job the other time.
ESPN: That's interesting. It really is because I was never a race car driver, but everyone tells me you have to treat it the same way. But it's not the same. So, there's no way. But that's the goal, right?
Bell: I will never get to experience being in the Super Bowl, but I would imagine it's something similar to that or NBA Finals. The pageantry, the hoopla, are significantly greater than any other event we run throughout the year, and it is a little bit hard to put that behind you. But whenever I get into the car, whether it's Friday for practice or Saturday for qualifying, I'll be nervous as can be, but then as soon as you fire that engine, then it's all normal. Like, OK, this is what I was born to do. This is what I do, this is my life. All that other stuff goes away.
ESPN: OK, so you've helmetized and it's all normal. But in this particular race, can you focus just on you, or when there's 50 laps to go do you want to know where the three guys are at all times? You've been there now, so what was and what will be your approach?
Bell: That's a little bit different, too, because it really doesn't matter where you finish. You have to beat the other three competitors to win the championship. Now, most of the time it comes down to the four guys racing for the win, and you know that. So again, it isn't really much different than any other race because you're out there expecting to have to win the race to win the championship. But, you know, I guess if there is a rare instance where the other guys aren't as competitive as normal, then you're like, "OK, you know what, I'm running third and I'm the highest-running championship guy. Maybe I'm not going to push as hard to try and win here." Certainly, you're not going to push as hard if that situation arises. But that's just something that you have to play by ear as it comes up.
ESPN: So, just so I'm clear. Treat it like a normal race because that's what it is and that's what your mindset should be, even though it totally isn't normal so your mindset definitely needs to be a little different.
Bell: Yeah, sounds like I have it all totally figured out, right? [Laughs]
2023: 4 wins, 2 poles, 14 top-5s, 17 top-10s, 8 DNFs
2023 Playoffs: 2 wins, 0 poles, 4 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 2 DNFs
Playoff history: 7th appearance, 9 wins
Best championship finish: 1st, 2021
Phoenix career stats: 18 starts, 1 win, 7 top-5s, 11 top-10s, 1 DNF, 11.7 average finish
ESPN: As if you didn't have enough going on, at basically the same time you won at Vegas to join the Championship 4, you also bought the entire All-Star Race of Champions Circuit from Tony Stewart?
Larson: Yeah. [Laughs] I wasn't busy enough, so ...
ESPN: When you own a series and you're in the track business, do you look at race weekends differently now? Weather and hot dogs and having employees and water trucks for all that dirt.
Larson: We're going through building our schedule for next year right now. You definitely have to factor in the different seasons that each state kind of gets throughout the year. There's just a lot to factor into the logistics of it, the travel for the teams and going back and forth and this and that, and you're trying to make it make sense for everybody. It's difficult, and it's never going to make sense for everybody.
ESPN: Is that fun? That doesn't sound fun.
Larson: No, I definitely think it is fun. I think anytime you have something challenging that you work on, and when you get it all completed and feel like you did a good job, then it's rewarding, and that, in turn, is fun.
ESPN: Like winning a Cup Series championship.
Larson: Yep, that's it.
ESPN: I look at the other three title contenders and you are definitely the wily old veteran of this Championship 4. Is your approach to a championship race different now as opposed to the first time you did or as opposed to 2021, the year that you won it?
Larson: The style of our sport, even vs. 2021, I feel like is different than it was then. And the style of racing is a lot different than it was when I was first in the Chase, what, seven years ago. Winning three weeks ago certainly helps. We went into Phoenix prep pretty much immediately. For Phoenix, I have, like, the same group of friends and family that are coming that we always do, nothing extra. We actually live in Phoenix a big chunk of the year, so it's like a second home now. I think in 2021 our team did a really good job of keeping our heads in it and executing at the crunch time of the race on pit road and ultimately winning because of it. So, here's hoping we can do all that the same, if not better, this time around.
ESPN: I remember we spent a lot of time together back in 2017 for an "E60" feature we did on you as NASCAR's next big thing. And this is no slight to anywhere else you have driven, but you and I talked and your dad and I really talked about, man, what would it be like to drive for a Hendrick Motorsports? Well, it's been three years now. Is it everything that you thought it would be, driving for Rick Hendrick?
Larson: I would say yes, and probably more. Well, 1, I never thought they would let me race sprint cars, and I especially never would have thought that they would let me race as much as I do. And then just how the culture is. From the outside, you know it's good, but you never know until you're in it. And it's that way everywhere that Mr. H is involved. There's a reason no one leaves. There are so many people here that have been here for decades. They all love working there.
ESPN: As do you.
Larson: I do. And there's also accountability. You want to win races and championships for you, for sure. But now you really want to win those because you don't want to let these people down.
2023: 6 wins, 3 poles, 14 top-5s, 20 top-10s, 3 DNFs
2023 Playoffs: 1 win, 0 poles, 5 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 0 DNFs
Playoff history: 5th appearance, 1 win, this year
Best championship finish: 6th, 2022
Phoenix career stats: 11 starts, 1 win (last race run there), 1 top-5, 6 top-10s, 0 DNFs, 11.9 average finish
ESPN: So, Martinsville. It was like 85 degrees outside. You never had a handle on it and had to race your way in and did it the hard way, starting 16th and finishing 13th. You described it as, what was it, hell in a bottle?!
Byron: We just missed it, man. We ran pretty poor there in the spring, so yeah, I was nervous going there because I felt like we needed to make a lot of improvements. We fired off the race and weren't much different, so it was just, "OK, we're battling." So, yes, it was, it was ugly, but it worked out.
ESPN: Earlier this week, Marty Smith and I were saying that after the year you've had (series-leading six wins, ranked third or better in points since May) it would have been a shame if you hadn't made the Championship 4. So, with a chance to fumble that away in one race, were you worried, panicked, what?
Byron: For us, the pressure just continued to increase as we got in the playoffs just because of our position and what we had done throughout the year. You have a lot of playoff bonus points, so that's good. But when other guys are winning and punching tickets to Phoenix and you're not one of them, there was definitely anxiety within the team.
ESPN: But you did win the last race run at Phoenix, back in March, and you did it by getting around Larson and holding off Blaney and Bell, so hey, this is already a done deal, right?
Byron: [Laughing] Totally. Like, why are we even running the race, right? The good news is that we have a good notebook on the car. We also know the blueprint of how to win and the restarts at the end and all that crazy stuff. The bad news is that they will all be better, too. And conditions will be much different when it comes to temperature changes, much warmer in the fall. But we have a lot of practice time and we'll be ready.
ESPN: You'd better be. Because not only do you drive the No. 24 car, the boss man is the guy who used to drive that car and was one of the greatest of all time. So, is Jeff Gordon (now vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports) going to come over and put his arm around you like, "No pressure, but this is the first chance my car has had to win a title since I was in it ..."
Byron: JG has definitely stopped by and given me a good pregame speech the last two weeks. He comes over by the window right before the net goes up and he gives me a little pep talk. So, I'm expecting the same this week. Honestly, it's pretty nuts. I grew up a huge fan. And it's so cool to me that the style of the No. 24 has stayed the same, and when I'm at the race shop, there are all the cars that won all those races that I watched on TV or in person and, I mean, I'm driving that car. It's just super cool to have that connection.
ESPN: All right, speaking of connections, how does this work now with the Blaney situation? You're racing against the guy for the championship, and you'll be driving to the track that morning with his sister, your girlfriend, in the car. How does that work? I already asked him, so be honest.
Byron: I mean, it's racing. It's competition. We'll race just as hard as anyone out there, and honestly, it's fun for us because we've had good battles over the years. We both want to win, and I guess when we get to Thanksgiving, we'll see how that goes. Someone is going to have bragging rights. And whoever wins, I guess we'll have to buy dinner.
ESPN: And bring the big Cup.
Byron: That might be a bit much. But maybe not. [Laughs]