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HomeSportsAuto RacingNAS News: NASCAR title chase down to veteran drivers and owners

NAS News: NASCAR title chase down to veteran drivers and owners

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This year’s championship-eligible team owners — Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske — have 22 NASCAR Cup Series championships among their teams. One of their drivers has hoisted the season’s most prized trophy for the last five consecutive years and 14 of the last 18 seasons.

As representatives from each organization spoke to the racing media on Tuesday afternoon, there was an unmistakable vibe that this is not their first time in the game. However, the excitement, anticipation and hope anticipating Sunday’s Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) was equally as obvious.

They are energized about the weekend and each team — from Hendrick Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing to Team Penske — has high expectations and championship plans. Once again.

They are so used to competing against one another for the sport’s marquee trophy, they can practically interview each other. And on Tuesday, they did.

“We always text each other and congratulate each other after we win,” NASCAR Hall of Fame owner Rick Hendrick reminded fellow Hall of Famer Gibbs on the national teleconference featuring the three championship-eligible team principles.

“If I happen to win,” Hendrick continued, “are you going to text me and congratulate me Sunday?”

“I will be forced to, I feel like I need to do that, so yes I will,” a smiling Gibbs replied. “The problem is I’ve been having to text a whole lot more than you have.

“I appreciate you,” he added with a smile. “Let’s go get it. Let’s have a good one.”

Fans and competitors can expect a good one, all right. This weekend’s championship matchup is absolutely too tough to call with four drivers — all 31 years old or younger — competing for the 2023 title. And compelling cases can be made for any of the four.

Mathematically, Hendrick boasts the best chances for a trophy hoist fielding two of the Championship 4 Round drivers — 31-year-old Kyle Larson, the 2021 series champion, and 25-year-old William Byron, this year’s winningest driver.

For the second straight season, Gibbs will look to 28-year-old driver Christopher Bell to bring the NASCAR Cup Series trophy back to his team. And it’s up to 29-year-old Ryan Blaney — who earned a walk-off win of sorts last weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway — to try and secure a second consecutive championship title for Team Penske, who won last year with Blaney’s teammate Joey Logano.

Hendrick, the 14-time NASCAR Cup Series championship owner, certainly likes his chances this weekend. Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won at Phoenix two years ago to claim the 2021 championship and Byron won at the one-mile track the last time the sport competed there, just this spring.

Larson is a four-time race winner this season and Byron’s six trophies are double what he’s earned any other single season.

“We’re just happy to be in the race,” Hendrick said. “We’re happy to have two good cars going out there to race for the championship. Both cars have been good all year. I hope that one of ‘em can win. I don’t see that either one has any more advantage over the other guy.

“I think our guys are prepared,” Hendrick continued. “We’re going to go out with the best cars we have. A lot of attention to detail. We’ll try to execute a race without any mistakes — that’s what you got to do. You have to have good pit stops. Cautions have to fall the right way. You can be a dominant car and not win this race, so we’ve just got to run the race.

“When you start the year, you want to try to get cars to the Championship 4. When you can get one or two, you’ve had a great year.”

Although the series Regular Season Champion — Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. — was eliminated last week in an epic Round of 8 elimination race at the Martinsville, Va. short track, the remaining competitors all bring winning records and strong credentials. Not only are all four drivers considered the sport’s best of the up-and-coming, there’s a good case to be made they are no longer “coming.” They are here.

“I just think this happens to be — and I know everybody is writing about it, talking about it — it’s a younger group for sure in the Playoffs,” said Gibbs, whose team is the only one in the sport to qualify at least one car in the Championship 4 since this elimination format was introduced 10 years ago.

“There’s so much on the line,” Gibbs said of this one crowning race to decide the season title. “I go all the way back to when we raced under the other format where it was just year-long, whoever had the most points, won.

“Really what happened there sometimes it’s pretty much over before even the last race. I think what NASCAR did, which certainly, I think, increased fan effort and excitement about our Playoffs, certainly fits with TV and everything else that takes place.

“The way it’s designed right now, it does add to the pressure,” Gibbs said of the Championship 4 format, “I think that the fans really do enjoy it because there is that much pressure. You got three weeks to make it happen.”

The Penske organization is renowned in all forms of auto sport — from NASCAR to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship to IndyCars — but as with Hendrick’s Byron, this is Blaney’s first appearance in the Championship 4.

He’s won three races — two in the Playoff portion of the schedule — and with his decisive victory last weekend at Martinsville, he certainly brings momentum to the championship weekend; his first opportunity — a “breakthrough win” to hoist his sport’s most celebrated trophy.

“It’s given him self-confidence,” said Team Penske Vice Chairman Walt Czarnecki. “I looked up something the other day. He’s (Blaney) been in the final eight four times previously, but he’s never entered the last elimination race above the cutline. That happened this year. That was part of that confidence building. And of course, to win at Martinsville really put him over the top.

“I had several people comment to me about his demeanor after the race in the interviews, on the stage. Someone said, ‘he looks like a champion.’ And he really did.”

It’s actually an apt description of all four young talented drivers who after a season of success — some new-found and some long-standing — look to provide a thrilling exclamation point to 2023.

Perhaps Hendrick spoke for all three of these long-standing championship teams when he said, “The way this thing plays out, you got to go run one race. Once they strap in the car, everybody that’s got a car in this race is going to do the very best they can to take the best car they’ve got with all the information that they can gather to be ready for this race.”

“I hate to have to race those two, ‘cause they definitely are going to be hard to beat,” Hendrick said of his fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers, Gibbs and Penske. “And I’m not surprised at all that they’re there.”

–Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media

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