Penske’s Ryan Blaney races to first NASCAR title in fiery fashion

AP photo by Darryl Webb / Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship with a second-place finish in the season finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
AP photo by Darryl Webb / Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship with a second-place finish in the season finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Blaney had to beat Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron to win his first NASCAR championship.

He needlessly added Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain to his list, too, racing him pointlessly hard in an attempt to win the Cup Series finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. When he couldn't pass Chastain, Blaney angrily ran into the back of his car.

It was a side of Blaney his team and competitors know very well.

The public? Not so much.

The soft-spoken third-generation racer from Ohio used a pugnacious second-place run at Phoenix to win the 2023 Cup Series championship in a drive that showcased a fire that apparently blazes inside the typically mild-mannered Blaney.

"You can say his frustration level gets above the boiling point, I'd have to say," said team owner Roger Penske, who won back-to-back Cup Series titles with Blaney's performance.

The clash with Chastain followed an earlier deliberate collision by Team Penske's Blaney with Joe Gibbs Racing's Martin Truex Jr. at the end of a caution.

Blaney also raced Larson extremely hard, and he had clearly had enough of Chastain, the leader and eventual race winner, with 53 laps remaining. That's when Blaney ran his No. 12 Ford into the back of Chastain's Chevrolet.

"Not surprised by it because it's him and he does that," said Chastain, who believes Blaney also flashed him the middle finger. "Anger. He gets angry. It's OK. I've known him for a decade. I could see him moving around in the car. The car's going straight. I could see his colorful suit and gloves. When I checked the camera, I was like, 'Oh, he is angry.'"

Blaney's behavior was relayed to Byron, who dates Blaney's youngest sister, Erin.

"The 12 is melting down," Byron was told over the radio.

Byron, who led the Cup Series with six wins in points races this year, started from the pole position at Phoenix and led 96 laps early.

"He's always aggressive," Byron said with a smile. "He's always quick and aggressive. I don't think it was anything new."

Larson was watching and waiting to pounce in case Blaney made a mistake. The championship was guaranteed to the highest-finishing driver between Blaney, Byron, Larson and JGR's Christopher Bell, but he broke a brake rotor early and was eliminated with a last-place finish.

Larson, the only previous champion among the final four contenders, called Blaney "a quiet guy, but I feel like he races really hard and he gets extremely fired up, too. I'm curious what his radio sounded like."

Blaney became the first Ohio-born driver to win the Cup Series title and followed teammate Joey Logano, who won for Penske a year ago. It was an amazing finish for Ford Performance, which struggled most of the season but came on late with Blaney, who won two of the final six playoff races. Bell was in a Toyota, while Byron and Larson were in Chevrolets.

The title was the fourth all-time championship on NASCAR's top circuit for Penske, but this is first time "The Captain" has won consecutive Cup Series titles. His IndyCar program won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 with Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden, and Penske has 44 total championships across motorsports.

Blaney, who has driven for Penske since 2013, noted how important it was to win for the 86-year-old team owner, who was recently hospitalized with shingles and missed Blaney's win at Martinsville Speedway a week earlier. Penske was at Phoenix and calmly watched the race from a suite, but he made his way to the front stretch to congratulate his 29-year-old driver.

"I thought the captain had to stay cool. He's the coolest guy on the ship," Penske said of watching the race with a headset he used frequently to calm Blaney over the radio. "I would say I probably was cool, but inside I was turning over. I told him before the race, 'Win, lose or draw, you're a champion.'"

Blaney for sure needed it Sunday, and he used an expletive to admit he deliberately ran into Chastain.

"Yes, I hit him on purpose. He blocked me on purpose 10 times," Blaney said. "So, yeah, I hit him on purpose. He backed me up to the other championship guy (Larson), and I've got to go."

  photo  AP photo by Darryl Webb / Team Penske's Ryan Blaney crosses the finish line second overall but first among the four title contenders in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. Ross Chastain, who was not eligible for the title, won the race, but Blaney finished ahead of third-place Kyle Larson and fourth-place William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports. The other title contender, Joe Gibbs Racing's Christoper Bell, was unable to finish the race because of a torn brake rotor.

Penske has won three Cup Series titles in the past six seasons.

"It was definitely on my mind to give him consecutive titles, I mean, because he's done everything in motorsports and we had a chance to go back-to-back on the Cup side with him," Blaney said. "I mean, we couldn't pass up that opportunity. So everyone worked really hard to make it happen, and I'm so proud of the effort."

Blaney is the son of former Cup Series driver Dave Blaney, who made 473 starts over 17 seasons. Dave was a World of Outlaws champion, his brother, Dale, was a sprint car champion, and their father, Lou, was credited with multiple Midwest titles.

"Obviously I come from a family of racers, my grandfather, dad and uncle," Blaney said. "Dad is obviously who I grew up watching and admiring, wanted to be like. To be able to do what he did, cause as a kid I just wanted to do what dad did, so to be able to race and let alone compete for wins and championships, still have my parents around, people that you look up to that are still around, it makes it even more special."

Chastain, the Cup Series runner-up to Logano last season, was one of 16 drivers who started the 10-race playoffs in title contention, but he was eliminated after the sixth race of the postseason when the field was trimmed to eight drivers.

Sunday's victory was a consolation prize that makes him the answer to a trivia question: He is the first driver to win the season finale while not racing for the championship since Denny Hamlin in 2013, one year before this current elimination format began.

Larson finished third and Byron was fourth, followed by Chris Buescher and Truex.

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 season champion, finished seventh in the final race of his Cup Series career. The 47-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver with 60 wins -- but none since August 2022 -- announced before this season that he would retire.

Even after Blaney's clash with Chastain, there was still a final round of pit stops to come when a Kyle Busch spin brought out the final caution of the race with 37 laps remaining. Blaney was second when he headed to pit road, but it was Larson and the No. 5 Hendrick team that had the fastest pit stop.

"Let's do this guys," Larson told his crew as he headed in for the stop.

Larson was the first of the title contenders off pit road, while Blaney lost four spots and was sixth on the last restart. Blaney made up some quick ground and eventually caught Larson, but he had to race door-to-door for several laps against the 2021 champion before finally clearing him with 20 laps remaining.

"Blaney had to work for it. He really had to work for it," Larson said. "And guys around him that were not in the final four were racing him really hard. He definitely deserved it and earned it."

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