By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ryan Blaney earned this one.
When his NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders advanced past his No. 12 Team Penske Ford on the final pit stop, it could have been game over, but Blaney would not be deterred, taking the bull by the horns and chasing them back down to secure his first Cup title.
While Blaney may have started the worst among the four drivers in the championship fight, he was on go from the drop of the green flag until the checkered, advancing through the field and moving into the top spot among the title contenders as the laps clicked away Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway.
But on lap 276, the dreaded yellow flag flew, sending Blaney, Kyle Larson, and William Byron to pit road, with conventional wisdom being that whichever of the three came out first would go on to win the championship.
Just as they did in his 2021 championship season, Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports pit crew did yeoman’s work in getting him out first, followed by Byron and then Blaney.
If Blaney was going to win the championship, he would have go and take it away from the other two and that’s exactly what he did.
A fierce battle ensued on the restart with 31 laps to go, with the championship seemingly up in the air among all three, but when the chips were down, Blaney was at his best, eventually passing both Byron and Larson before setting sail and putting a comfortable advantage between himself and the others.
While he wasn’t able to chase down race leader Ross Chastain to be able to win the race as well, a runner-up result was more than enough to secure his first Cup championship and second in a row for team owner Roger Penske.
“Just time to go to work,” Blaney said. “I mean, did a good job of getting to where we needed to be. Those guys had two good pit stops. Just need to go to work. Hoping our car was good enough, which it was.
“Just so proud of this team. Unbelievable year, unbelievable Playoffs for us. To win back-to-back Cup titles for Mr. Penske, that’s so special. Having my family here, winning my first Cup title, I got emotional in the car. I’m not a very emotional guy.
“Thank you, guys, for coming. Hope it was an awesome show.”
Larson and Byron would finish the race in third and fourth, respectively, to end the season as the next two in the final championship standings. While they fell short of the ultimate goal, both drivers noted that there was a reason that Blaney will be taking home the hardware as he was the driver to beat down the stretch.
“When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” Larson said.
“I felt like I could maybe hold off William for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan was going to be tough.”
Byron looked to be the driver to beat in the early stages of the race, leading four times for 95 laps, but just didn’t have the car he needed at the end.
“Once he got in front of us, it was really hard to chase him back down,” Byron added. “With (Kyle) Larson, I thought we were pretty even. We came off pit road and he did a good job the last run. They had more speed than us the last run. The last run of the race, we were pretty tight there.
“Like I said, just really proud of this team. We’ve had a great season and there’s a lot to be proud of, and we’re going to keep digging hard.”
Meanwhile, the fourth championship contender, Christopher Bell, would finish the day at the tail end of the field after a brake rotor failure on lap 110 that sent him into the outside wall. A subsequent fire broke out in the right-front wheel well of Bell’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as he limped back to pit road.
After a brief inspection, it was clear the damage was too much to be able to continue and he took his car to the garage, ending his race and dashing his championship hopes.
“That was my first time I’ve ever exploded a rotor in my career. So, yeah, I was surprised,” said Bell. “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. I’m super, super proud of this 20 team and all of our partners at DEWALT and Rheem. To be in the Final 4 is something we’re really proud of.”