AUBURN, Ala (EETV) - From yelling into his radio out of frustration early in the race, to yelling into the crowd out of excitement after the race; Ryan Blaney felt all the emotions as he crossed the finish line ahead of the other three championship contending drivers to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
For the first time in a decade, the championship driver did not finish first. That title went to Ross Chastain, who was eliminated from the playoffs in the round of 12. Chastain led 157 of the 312 laps in his winning performance at Phoenix Raceway. However, all eyes were on the four championship drivers of Blaney (2nd), Kyle Larson (3rd), William Byron (4th) and Christopher Bell (36th). The only goal for these drivers: finish ahead of the other three.
Byron who started in first after winning the pole, led 95 laps at the start of the race, just didn't have the car he hoped he would and wasn't able to make the lap time necessary to make the moves late in the race. Bell started the race with a promising top-10 run, however, his day would come to a fiery halt when a mechanical brake issue plagued his car and sent him to the garage.
Blaney was running in second, out in front of the other championship drivers nearing the end of the race, before a spin by Kyle Busch brought out the caution forcing a late-race restart. The race was now on pit-road, Larson's team gave him the advantage and it was up to him to hold his ground. With only 30 laps to go, every driver would need an almost-perfect restart if they wanted a shot at the title. Larson's restart was not what he wanted and this is what Larson believed cost him his shot.
"I needed to come out as the leader on that restart. Ross got a really good start from the second row. Was hoping I could get clear of Denny (Hamlin) and get the lead, have Ross kind of protect for me behind me."
Blaney took advantage of Larson's struggle and seated himself into second, out ahead of everyone he needed to beat. Blaney held on for the remaining few laps and secured his name in NASCAR history as he won the championship in the sport's 75th anniversary season. This title gives Roger Penske, team owner of the number 12, 22 and 2 Ford Mustangs, his second consecutive title. This is the first time Penske has held this honor.
Blaney spent most of the race struggling to make passes and being frustrated with his car in every run, forcing his crew chief Jonathon Hassler to make the perfect adjustments to his No. 12 machine, not just once either, on every pit-stop during the race. It's safe to say now that Hassler's adjustment's worked. Blaney's emotions of frustration quickly turned during the last lap when he finished the race with tears in his eyes.
"You never want to count yourself out," an emotional 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."
Kevin Harvick, 60 career Cup wins and 2014 Cup Series Champion, retired after his 23rd season. Harvick led 23 laps today at his favorite track where he now has 21 consecutive top-10s (most all time). Harvick is not done yet with the sport though, as he will become a team member of Fox Sport's NASCAR coverage starting in 2024.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster for sure," Harvick said. "As you look at this last week. This really means a lot to me just because I love driving the racecar, I love being around the people more. I love our sport, it's given me and our family so much through the years to be thankful for and proud of and I can't wait to be able to walk into that tunnel with my head up and look around and look at all the really cool things that are NASCAR racing."
NASCAR will be back on February 18, for the famed crown jewel, the Daytona 500.