By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. — 35 races down, one to go.
Sunday afternoon, the NASCAR Cup Series will hit the track at Phoenix Raceway for the 2023 season finale, bringing this season to a close and crowning a champion.
Heading into this year’s championship race, it will be a battle between a former champion in Kyle Larson and three other drivers making their first appearance in the Championship 4 to see who will be hoisting the Bill France Cup when the checkered flag falls.
Joining Larson in the championship race will be Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, Christopher Bell from Joe Gibbs Racing, and Ryan Blaney serving as the Ford contingent in his Team Penske machine.
By the Numbers
What: NASCAR Cup Series Championship, Race No. 36 of 36
Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona (Opened: 1964, first NASCAR Cup event was 1988)
When: Sunday, November 5
TV/Radio: NBC, 3:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.0-mile oval
Banking: Eight to nine degrees in Turns 1-2, 10 to 11 degrees in Turns 3-4 and frontstretch dogleg
Race Length: 312 laps, 312 miles (500 km)
Stage Lengths: Stage One – 75 laps each, Stage Two – 115 laps, Final stage – 122 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Fuel Window: 85 to 90 laps
March 2023 Race Winner: William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet (Started 13th, 60 laps led)
November 2022 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started third, 143 laps led)
Tale of the Tape – How the Championship 4 Stack Up:
Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2023 Stats: Four wins (Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington, Las Vegas), 14 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, two poles, 1127 laps led, 15.0 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 18 starts, one win (2021), seven top-five finishes, 11 top-10 finishes, 11.7 average finish
Practice Result: 10th
Starting Position: Fourth
Why Larson Can Win: Of the four championship contenders, Larson is the only one of them that has been here before and walked away with the title. And that experience could be invaluable on Sunday as Larson goes for his second title in three years.
Not to mention, when the chips are down, a driver of Larson’s caliber is who you want to have in the driver’s seat. If Larson is within striking distance late on Sunday, there could be fireworks in store for the other three championship contenders.
What the Driver Says: “I think full first stop, you need to have speed in your race car. I think a lot like we did in 2021, obviously I would love to have the fastest car and just dominate, but I think you just got to keep yourself in contention.
“If things aren’t going perfectly or you’re not leading the race with 40 or 50 to go, don’t lose hope. I think just continue to plug away and something may change the race. Just be in contention to let your team kind of pick you guys up. Like I said, a like lot what happened in 2021. We were running fourth. I was losing hope. We had a caution, had a chance for a pit stop, and the rest is history.
“Yeah, I think just keeping yourself in contention, just doing the best job you can. Whatever results come, just be proud of that.”
Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford
2023 Stats: Three wins (Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville), seven top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, 560 laps led, 14.4 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 15 starts, no wins, six top-five finishes, 10 top-10 finishes, three poles, 429 laps led, 11.9 average finish
Practice Result: Third
Starting Position: 15th
Why Blaney Can Win: Momentum, momentum, momentum.
After shaking off a summer slump that seemed likely to doom the No. 12 team heading toward the Playoffs, they have come back strong in the postseason and have only been getting better as the races wind down to the finale.
Coming off his win a week ago at Martinsville and with runner-up finishes in each of the last two races at Phoenix, Blaney will definitely be in the mix on Sunday as he looks to finish one position better and capture his first Cup Series championship.
What the Driver Says: “I just look at how we’ve been the last three weeks. Really, really proud of our effort. Our group, I mean, we didn’t really lead at Vegas, but we were super-fast there. Had a great shot to win at Miami. Just absolutely whipped everybody at Martinsville last week.
“I think the momentum we have coming into this weekend is huge. I talk about momentum in this sport is really big. Confidence, peaking at the right time is huge. That’s in any sport, right? The team that peaks at the right time, you never know what can happen. It happens every single — whether it’s stick and ball, whatever, make the Playoffs, your team starts peaking at the right time. It happened in baseball this year.
“That’s like huge. I think this team is on that upside right now to where we’re where we need to be at the perfect time.”
Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2023 Stats: Two wins (Bristol Dirt, Homestead), 10 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, seven poles, 599 laps led, 12.3 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: Seven starts, four top-10 finishes, 14.4 average finish
Practice Result: Fourth
Starting Position: 13th
Why Bell Can Win: If any of the four drivers are flying under the radar, it’s Bell. Even after decisively winning at Homestead to punch his ticket to the championship race, the focus is certainly more on the other title contenders instead of Bell and he is just fine with that.
Bell has shown that when his back is against the wall, his team steps up to the plate and Sunday is the ultimate win or go home race. Should the trend continue, it very well may be Bell that is the newest Cup Series champion.
What the Driver Says: “I learned a lot last year. One thing was we weren’t super competitive last year. We didn’t qualify well. We didn’t practice well. But whenever it came down to the end of the race, we still had an opportunity at it.
“I feel like most people, they didn’t see that. At the end of the race the last green-flag pit stop, me and Joey are within a second, I think. I followed him down pit road for the money stop in the championship event with 30 laps to go, however long it was.
“With that being said, we weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be, and we were still in the thick of it. This year we will be more competitive. You’re not out of it until the checkered flag falls.”
William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2023 Stats: Six wins (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Darlington, Atlanta, Watkins Glen, Texas), 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, four poles, 921 laps led, 11.2 average finish
Phoenix Specific Stats: 11 starts, one win (March 2023), one top-five finish, six top-10 finishes, 91 laps led, 11.9 average finish
Practice Result: Seventh
Starting Position: Pole
Why Byron Can Win: When it comes to outright speed, Byron has been the driver to beat at points throughout the year and was victorious the last time the Cup Series raced in the Valley of the Sun.
Though the No. 24 team had a scare last weekend at Martinsville that nearly knocked Byron out of the running for the title, look for them to rebound in a big way this weekend as the series returns to Phoenix.
What the Driver Says: “We put together such a good year. To make it all the way to Martinsville and feel like your chances are slipping away was definitely kind of demoralizing, depressing.
“Now we have a new life for our team. This is what our goal was, to make the Championship 4. I think any team would say that. Now we feel like, I mean, we have nothing to lose.”