AVONDALE, Ariz. — In his ninth full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Ryan Blaney will get his first crack at winning the title this Sunday.
After winning his way into the Championship Four last weekend at Martinsville, the No. 12 team carries in as much momentum as anyone vying for the title this weekend in Phoenix.
Blaney also won his way into the Round of 8 as well, thanks to his photo-finish win at Talladega.
“What we’ve been doing the last three weeks, we’re plenty capable of winning the championship,” Blaney said. “The speed that we’ve shown, the execution that we’ve had has been pretty remarkable. I feel like we’ve had the best speed and executed the best races out of anybody in the Round of 8 and you just hope to keep doing that.”
In 10 editions of the elimination-style playoffs, three champions earned their first win of the playoffs in the Round of 12, then won their way into the Championship Four:
- 2014: Kevin Harvick
- 2016: Jimmie Johnson
- 2020: Chase Elliott
Becoming No. 4 would solidify 2023 as quite a bounceback year for Blaney. Last year, totaled a whopping 12 top-5 finishes but had zero wins to show for it.
This year, Blaney has three wins this season, seven top-five finishes and 17 top-10s.
In last season’s championship race, Blaney arguably had the fastest car in the entire field. However, he was obligated to assist Penske teammate Joey Logano to his second Cup Series title, finishing second that day.
In the spring race in Phoenix, Blaney found himself three-wide for the lead on with two laps to go following a chaotic restart, but a push from Tyler Reddick was all William Byron needed to secure the win.
“This track just fits what we do in this car,” Blaney said. “Even in years past we’ve been strong here in the older generation car, but especially in this NextGen car, we’ve been really strong. I had a great shot at winning this thing in the fall last year, had a good shot to win it in the spring this year. Hopefully we can bring that same speed.”
In 15 races at the one-mile oval, Blaney has six top-fives and 10 top-10s but has yet to visit victory lane in the desert.
During media day Thursday, Blaney compared Phoenix’s unique layout to a couple of other tracks on the schedule.
“I feel like we’ve always done a really good job, no matter what size track, if two different ends of the speedway are very different, we do a good job of making both ends pretty good,” Blaney said. “I look at Texas, I look at Gateway, here it’s similar to that. We just do a good job at it, figuring out where we need to be.”
Blaney’s Cup Series career has been very up and down, with many missed opportunities throughout. So when he finally put it all together to secure his spot in the Championship Four, the moment held a little more weight.
Dealing with the weight of the moment is difficult for any driver in a race where the stakes are as high as this one. Being able to bottle the nerves and use them to his advantage will be key for the 29-year-old driver to finally capture the elusive prize.
“I think a lot of it is, ‘How do you handle the pressure of the moment?’” Blaney said. “I’ve always said, if someone tells you there’s no pressure in these moments, they’re lying. There’s always pressure in these moments. This is what you do, this is what you live for. This is your livelihood. There are hundreds of people back at the race shop that rely on you, so there’s pressure there, but it’s how you accept that pressure and how you use it to your benefit.”
A unique wrinkle to this year’s Championship Four for Blaney is that his sister’s boyfriend is also racing in the Championship Four – that being William Byron.
Blaney couldn’t help but laugh Thursday when recalling what he said to his sister earlier in the week.
“He comes from a great family, great kid, awesome race car driver. He and I have a lot of respect for each other,” Blaney said. “At the end of the day, it is kinda funny we’re both going for a championship. I told Erin, ‘you got the best percentage of anybody for someone you care about winning this thing. You got a better chance than us four sitting up here,’ but ya it’s a funny dynamic.”
While the two may be laughing about it now, it will be all business Sunday when the score is finally settled in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship. The green flag is set to fly at Phoenix Raceway after 3 p.m. EST.