Second place was good enough. Good enough for Ryan Blaney to become a NASCAR Cup series champion.
Blaney emerged from a furious battle with Kyle Larson 20 laps from the end at Phoenix Raceway Sunday and held on to finish second behind Ross Chastain, but ahead of the two remaining Championship contenders to win his first Cup series title.
The final laps were set up by the race’s second caution for cause when Kyle Busch got loose and smacked the frontstretch wall on lap 276 with Chastain leading and Blaney second.
On the ensuing pit stops, Larson was able to get out ahead of Chastain, championship contender William Byron, and Blaney.
The green came on lap 281 and soon Chastain, Larson and Blaney were three wide for the lead. Chastain emerged with the top spot, leaving Blaney and Larson to settle the runner up spot and the title. That duel ended on lap 292 when Blaney was finally able to clear Larson. Blaney had nothing for leader Chastain in the closing laps, but it didn’t matter as he finished ahead of Larson and Byron.
Blaney said he knew what he had to do prior to that final restart.
“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.”
Larson, the 2021 champion finished third and will have to wait another year to go after a second title.
“Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game,” Larson said. “We weren’t the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops because I knew the way our team executed our lights, the way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop, I knew that was going to be our only shot really to win.”
William Byron, who led from the pole won Stage 1 and led a total of 95 laps had to settle for a fourth-place finish.
“Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight,” Byron said, “Especially when we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight back in second through fifth, just couldn’t gain a lot of speed through one and two, just kind of having to really over-slow the car, get it to the bottom.
“That’s all we had there.”
The fourth title contender Christopher Bell, saw his championship hopes came to a fiery end on lap 108 when his Toyota lost a brake rotor coming into Turn 3 sending him hard into the outside wall while he was running sixth. He brought the car into the pits with fire coming out of the right front but was done for the day. Bell finished last in the race, 36.
“I’m very proud of the effort put forth by our team to get to the Championship 4,” Bell said. “But I do feel like we left a lot on the table at various races throughout the year. I’m excited about the future. We haven’t reached our potential yet.”
Blaney won three races this season, two of those coming during the Playoffs. But a win didn’t matter Sunday, as second place gave Blaney the title, and team owner Roger Penske his fourth title, and his second consecutive. It was a title that seemed improbable in the middle of the season and early in the Playoffs.
“You never want to count yourself out,” Blaney said. “I mean, I think in the summer we were struggling a little bit. But we never gave up. We just went to work. I’ve said that all week, like, this group goes to work and they figure out problems. That’s why they’re such an amazing group to be with, with the Team Penske folks, because they just put their head down and do the work, accept the challenge.”
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