NASCAR Cup Series title contenders a friendly four in Phoenix

AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / From left, NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and William Byron chat as they wait backstage during driver introductions before the start of a Cup Series playoff race on Oct. 22 at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway.
AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / From left, NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and William Byron chat as they wait backstage during driver introductions before the start of a Cup Series playoff race on Oct. 22 at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Oddsmakers may have listed Kyle Larson as the favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship, but half the field of the four drivers eligible for the title believe the person with the best chance to celebrate Sunday will be a spectator at Phoenix Raceway.

Erin Blaney is in the unique position in that both her boyfriend and her older brother are racing Sunday for the title in the 2023 season finale. It has become a bit of a joke between contenders Ryan Blaney of Team Penske and William Byron on Hendrick Motorsports, who referred to Blaney as his "brother-in-law" last week to trigger questions on what the mood might be like at Thanksgiving dinner if one of the two becomes champion.

"I told Erin, 'You have the best percentage to be happy after the race, a 50% shot to be happy," Blaney said Thursday at Phoenix Raceway. "I knew William before he and Erin started dating, but then I really got to know him outside of the track the last three or four years, and he's a great, great guy.

"I don't have a problem with it — I feel like people make more of a big deal than it actually is, and he and I have a good relationship. I don't race him any differently than I would anyone else that I have respect for."

And that might be the problem with these remaining contenders, who together form the youngest and most amicable group of drivers since NASCAR went to the winner-take-all final four format in 2014.

Larson, who also drives for Hendrick, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Christopher Bell, longtime rivals in dirt track racing, have settled any past beefs, while Blaney and Byron are already referring to each other as family. Larson, at 31, is the oldest driver of the group and the only one with a Cup Series title (2021), while Bell is in the final four for the second consecutive year and Blaney and Byron, at 25 the youngest of the group, have never before been eligible for the title in the finale.

Now on the big stage, Blaney lamented the lack of trash-talking and drama ahead of the big race.

"Unfortunately for you guys," Blaney said, referring to the media, "there is no bad blood, no rivalry, no one's mad at each other in this one. But I don't think that's going to make it any less of a good show. All of us are racing really hard on the race track with each other.

"Me, William, Kyle and Chris have raced the hell out of each other before, and it's never ended in an incident where one has been mad at each other. It's one of the championship fours where no one has any beef."

NBC analyst and NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said the lack of animosity between the final four drivers won't make any difference on the race.

"The drivers that make up the four just happen to have very even, calm personalities. They're just not very dynamic or aggressive," Earnhardt said. "I think it's more of a coincidence, and maybe that's a bit unfortunate because it maybe ruins some storylines or sound bites today, but I honestly believe that when it comes down to it, they'll do whatever it takes. Ask for forgiveness later to be able to be a champion."

  photo  AP photo by Paul Sancya / Christopher Bell, left, talks with fellow NASCAR driver Ross Chastain after winning the pole position during Cup Series qualifying on Aug. 5 at Michigan International Speedway.

Despite a series-high six wins this season and a considerable cushion in points, Byron did not feel comfortable enough to make his travel plans to Phoenix until he had locked in a spot in the championship four.

He was the final driver to qualify last Sunday at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway, then had to scramble to book his trip out West in time for NASCAR championship obligations. Because he also wanted to attend Wednesday night's World Series game in Phoenix between the host Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers, his options were limited.

So Byron flew American Airlines out of North Carolina. The only seat left? A middle seat in row 29. And as he passed a couple sitting in first class that wanted to wish him luck and chat about his chances, he had to cut them off because he was holding up the boarding process.

"I hit the upgrade button, but nothing was available. Just a middle seat in the way back," Byron said.

Byron, who was born and raised in Charlotte — the hub for NASCAR teams — is trying to become the first North Carolina native to win the Cup Series title since Dale Jarrett in 1999. He's also trying to win the first championship for the No. 24 Chevrolet since NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won his fourth in 2001.

Both opportunities are meaningful for Byron, who read all the criticism when he was promoted into Gordon's car as a 20-year-old in 2018.

"The 24, we had some pretty rough days there. I remember a lot of people questioning me driving the car and saying 'Hey, I don't know about this kid, he makes a lot of mistakes,'" Byron recalled. "I read all that stuff. It took a while for the 24 to get back to prominence in the Cup Series, but it's back now."

Meanwhile, Larson in the last year bought a home in the Phoenix area that is his base for championship week. In theory, it would give him an edge in rest and relaxation ahead of Sunday's race.

But with three children, including a 10-month-old son, Larson admitted he's a bit nervous about getting enough sleep the night before the race.

"Cooper was up at like 4:50 this morning, so I would love for (wife) Katelyn to, like, take him into a different room maybe Saturday night or Sunday morning," Larson said. "But I'm nervous about that conversation."

Blaney is a third-generation racer from Ohio, and his father, Dave, made 473 Cup Series starts over 17 seasons.

But NASCAR is not where the Blaney name was made. His uncle, Dale, is a sprint car champion, his father won a World of Outlaws championship, and his grandfather, Lou, "won tons of championships on dirt tracks."

Blaney now has a chance to give the family a NASCAR title.

"My parents are going to be here; I mainly want to do it for them," he said. "I grew up watching Dad race. It's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do this like he did. I know all the work he had to do to get me here. I saw all the sacrifices he and my mother made to get me to this point, to get started.

"It would be cool to come full circle for them. I think as a kid your biggest thing you want to do when you're a kid is make your parents proud. That would be the ultimate proud moment, I think. It would be cool to bring an asphalt championship to the Blaney family name."

Joe Gibbs Racing had three drivers capable of making the final four but wound up with just one, Bell, when regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were eliminated Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

Bell said it was a "unique" meeting for the organization the day after.

"It was strange. Obviously (my team) is all smiles and cheers and hurrahs, and the other teams are not," Bell said. "The last two Mondays have been very mixed emotion in the room. But I just need to win and bring a championship back."

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