AVONDALE – Despite starting the day fourth among the four drivers still in the hunt for the NASCAR Cup Championship and 15th in the 36-car field, Ryan Blaney beat the odds to walk away with his first Cup Championship.
Blaney, who finished second behind Ross Chastain on Phoenix Raceway’s distinctive 1-mile tri-oval, outlasted the other qualifiers for the “Championship Four,” William Byron, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, in the season-long chase for the championship.
Blaney led only two of the 312 laps Sunday, and didn’t take the lead over his three rivals still in the running for the championship until lap 212, but he had the fastest car on the day that counted the most.
Larson and his team would jump in front of Blaney twice throughout the remainder of the race in the pits, but as soon as the cars throttled up, Blaney was clearly the best of the last two standing.
“His car was really fast,” Larson said of Blaney. “Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game. We weren’t the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops because I knew the way our team executed. The way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop, I knew that was going to be our only shot to really win.”
It was the third consecutive year the NASCAR Cup Championship Weekend was held at the Phoenix Raceway, just southwest of Phoenix. The festivities concluded Sunday after four races throughout the weeklong event.
From Diamondbacks rookie Corbin Carroll to NASCAR legend Richard Petty, more than 60,000 fans attended the championship race. For now, the 2024 race is the last scheduled Cup Championship race for Phoenix Raceway, which hosted its first NASCAR Race in 1988 for the Checker 500. NASCAR has not yet announced the championship schedule for the 2025 season and beyond.
Headed into Sunday’s race, Blaney had qualified 15th in the field with Byron on the pole, Larson fourth and Bell 13th.
Byron held the lead to start the race, leading the first 95 laps. On Lap 108, Bell’s front right tire gave out, causing the car to smash into the retaining wall. The damage was enough to keep Bell’s car out the remainder of the race, and ultimately end his chance for the championship, although he wasn’t hurt.
“I mean, that was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career,” Bell said. “I was surprised. But early on in the race I had a little bit of brake fade, and the second run it just kept getting worse and worse. I don’t know. Just obviously a disappointing way to end.”
Blaney managed to hold on to finish second behind Chastain, a 2022 “Championship Four” driver. Blaney and his No.12 Ford gave Team Penske its second straight title in the NASCAR Cup, after Joey Logano won in 2022.
For Blaney, the victory marked his first and the first for his family. Blaney is the son of David Blaney, a former NASCAR driver who never finished as the champion.
“Unbelievable year, unbelievable playoffs for us,” Blaney said. “To win back-to-back Cup titles for Penske, that’s so special. Having my family here, winning my first Cup title, I got emotional in the car. And I am not a very emotional guy.”
Sunday’s Cup race also served as a fitting final NASCAR race for legendary driver Kevin Harvick, who won the championship in 2014. He also won the Daytona 500 in 2007, and has 60 total Cup wins, including nine victories in Phoenix.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster, for sure,” Harvick said. “I think as you look at this last week, this really means a lot to me just because I love driving the race car. I love being around the people more. I love our sport. It’s given our family so much through the years to be thankful for and proud of.”
On Saturday, the Xfinity Series saw a comeback story near completion. Cole Custer has been a full-time racer on NASCAR Cup Series for the previous three seasons but was demoted to the Xfinity Series this past season.
“You get kind of knocked down a little bit,” Custer said. “When you go to the Cup level, it’s so competitive. Things can just not go right for a few years. It’s just how it is, how tight it is.”
The Xfinity Series “Championship Four” drivers were in spots one through four headed into overtime after a late caution. Custer started overtime in the top spot but fell to fourth after a bad restart for his No. 00 car. Custer battled his way back to the top spot in less than two laps, securing his first championship win in NASCAR.
“I just tried to make sure I got a good exit and downshifted it and tried to make it off Turn 2,” Custer said. “We were able to get a good run and make it happen there. I don’t think it would happen again. But it was just an unbelievable restart that worked out right.”
Meanwhile, the Craftsman Truck Series saw a lot of action on Friday night. The race finished with four overtimes, the most ever in a championship race. Grant Enfinger led the four championship drivers after the first two overtimes, but after some exterior damage, the 23-car was sent to the pits for tires and body damage control.
“I feel like we did everything right,” the 38-year-old Enfinger said. “When it ended up being four wide, then gassed it up, and just kind of pushed us up a little bit. Racing for the championship four-wide is not going to work. We ended up being the odd man out and tore up our truck. Had to restart 22nd after that. That was pretty much all she wrote.”
The door was opened for 26-year-old Ben Rhodes, who found himself up over 10 positions headed into the third overtime. Although another overtime gave Enfinger a shot to fight back up the field, Rhodes took advantage of Enfinger’s damage and secured his second truck championship in three years.
The victory by Rhodes in a Ford F-150 truck gave Ford a clean sweep of Championship Weekend as he joined Custer and Blaney, who drove Ford Mustangs to championships.
“I can’t even believe it,” Rhodes said. “It’s just so awesome, man. To go 25 laps into overtime, do you know what that feels like? It’s crazy. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I thought we are going to pop a tire, anything that could have gone wrong was going to go wrong.”
NASCAR will return to Avondale in March for the 2024 spring race and again next November for the last – for now – Championship Weekend.