Ryan Blaney caps off dream playoff run with first Cup Series championship
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Monday, November 6, 2023
Photo Credit: Autoweek
Entering the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, many had Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 team written off as an early exit.
With just one win in the regular season despite having the speed to win many more, and entering the playoffs as the 12th seed out of 16 drivers as a result, the consistency, and more importantly, the ability to win, was not there, despite their solid speed.
However, after making it through to the Round of 12, Blaney won his second race of the season at Talladega Super Speedway, to advance to the Round of 8. Even with the win putting him in contention for a deep run, it was also a win at what is statistically his best track.
And, after beginning the Round of 8 below the cut line, Blaney had a fantastic run at Homestead Miami Speedway to put himself above the elimination zone entering Martinsville, where he then put together a dominant performance to win, and advance to the Championship. Level on points with an even playing field entering Phoenix, was the No. 12 team finally poised to break through with all the momentum they'd built up?
Turns out, they were.
After qualifying 15th for the Championship Finale at Phoenix Raceway, Blaney drove to the front with superior performance on the long runs, and took second place, and the clinching spot, away from Kyle Larson with less than 20 laps to go to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Blaney came through to win his first Bill France Cup, and the second in a row for Team Penske after Joey Logano won in 2022.
With his average finish of 14.2 in 2023, Blaney officially became the sole record-holder for the highest average finish of a NASCAR Cup champion since the playoff format's debut in 2014. With that, he also became the lowest-seeded driver to win in the playoff era as the 12th entry to the postseason.
Even with all the numbers and stats suggesting it was a major upset, it was still a thoroughly deserved title, given his superior playoff performances over the last ten weeks.
Finishing runner-up in the Championship 4 battle was the No. 5 team of Kyle Larson. The 2021 champions ran well inside the top ten all day long, but just never quite had the speed to take control of the title race. In spite of that, his pit crew gave him the lead of the championship under caution with around 40 laps to go.
But, try as he might, Larson couldn't hold off the hard-charging Blaney, and was forced to settle for third place, and an agonizing second in the championship.
Behind Larson was pole-sitter William Byron. The No. 24 dominated the first half of the race, before falling behind on car setup, and falling to the bottom end of the top 5. Unfortunately for him, that put Blaney, and teammate Larson ahead of him, relegating the team down to fourth in the race, and third in the championship. Despite the disappointment, having a season-high six wins to set a new career-best is nothing to scoff at.
Rounding out the Championship 4 drivers was Christopher Bell, who was right in contention with the other three drivers for the opening half of the race, before his right-front brake rotor exploded and sent him into the wall in Turn 3. Bell was warned for several laps that his brakes were overheating, but he couldn't cool them down in time. The No. 20 car finished the race last, and fourth in the standings.
Outside of the championship battle, it was Trackhouse Racing Team's Ross Chastain who came through with the victory in Phoenix. The driver of the No. 1 car became the first non-playoff driver since the playoff format's inception in 2014 to win the season finale.
After taking the lead midway through the race, Chastain put on a defensive masterclass to hold off Blaney and Martin Truex Jr at different stages for several laps at a time to score his second win of the season. Blaney was even seen flipping Chastain off due to the frustration of his incredible blocking.
Behind all the championship drivers was Chris Buescher in fifth to finish his breakout season for RFK Racing on a solid note. He came home ahead of Truex Jr. in sixth, and Kevin Harvick in seventh.
Harvick, competing in his final Cup Series race as a full-time driver, led laps early in the race, and finished with a very respectable result to cap off his career in front of many of his family and friends. With the result, Harvick even extended his NASCAR-record top ten-finish streak at a single track with his 21st in a row.
Denny Hamlin finished seventh to end another solid campaign, ahead of Michael McDowell in ninth, and Bubba Wallace in tenth.
With the 2023 season wrapped up, NASCAR will now go on a two and-a-half month histus, before returning with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Sunday, February 4th 2024.
While there will be plenty of storylines to follow entering the new season, such as Jimmie Johnson's Legacy Motor Club team's switch to Toyota, or a potential Truex Jr. retirement watch, it is time to take a break from racing for the the world's largest stock car racing series!