The NASCAR Cup Series championship race is this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Larson is the favorite to win the tournament at BetMGM, and thus the championship. The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi predicted what to expect this weekend and look ahead to next year.
1. Well… we did it. Championship 4. This has been a long journey and we have learned a lot together. So naturally we start with a NOOB question: four riders made it last. There will be a full car park. We’ve been following the dots for the past few months. How will the winner win the championship?
Jeff: Although NASCAR’s qualifying format is complicated for starters, the championship race is pretty simple: whichever of the four qualifying drivers finishes first is the champion. There are no stage points to worry about or anything like that; It is only based on completion. In the previous nine editions of this format, the champion has won the tournament each time. But the champion can only finish 30th if the three drivers in front of him fail. So the final four basically have their own mini-race in this big race.
Jordan: Jeff’s list summary is pretty good, so here’s the Cliff’s Notes edition: Whoever has the highest score among the four title finalists will win the championship.
2. I feel we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t talk about the wild Xfinity finish. Teammates willing to place, crazy destruction, heated comments later, and Justin Allgaier wins and joins the progression to another car. So what happens this week??
Jeff: Phoenix should be more stable than Martinsville in the race to make the championship game. Now it’s a head-to-head battle between Algaier, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Sam Mayer. There’s only one pairing this week (Algaier and Meyer), so you’d think Nemechek and Custer would have some friendly breaks from their own producer. But after Nemechek competed hard against teammate Sammy Smith in Martinsville and Smith missed the Final Four, Smith promised not to join Nemechek as a teammate in Phoenix.
Jordan: Oh, to be a fly on the wall during a race meeting at Richard Childress Racing. People had to pay to watch the live stream. RCR would make a few bucks. As for this week, don’t expect the same fireworks. These championship races feature serious, intense racing, but rarely anything that crosses the line and is considered trash.
3. Who will win the Cup Series?
Jeff: Ryan Blaney. He’s a hot hand after beating Martinsville and going well overall in the 3rd round. Plus, he’s great in Phoenix. He could have won last year’s championship, but he remained loyal to teammate Joey Logano and instead finished second. He then followed up by finishing second again in the spring. Blaney seems to have more energy than anyone right now, and despite being a wild card of sorts for the Diamondbacks before the tournament, he could very well win them all. That said, if you’re going to bet on who will win the championship, you might as well bet on them winning the race (with better odds).
Jordan: A strong case can be made for Blaney, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the championship. He’s been impressive in Phoenix in the next Gen era. But in that sense, this is Kyle Larson’s title to lose. He’s been on top speed this season and this is a track he’s already had success at – winning the championship in 2021 and potentially going close to competing here this spring. If he and No. 5 have a mistake-free race, Larsson will take the championship for the second time in three years.
4. If I were Martin Truex Jr. (I’m picking a guy at random here), and I was racing without a lot of hassle, what would I be doing? Are you trying to win anyway? Staying back and letting the top 4 fight it out? Anyone deep enough in the field to pull off a random major upset in Phoenix?
Jeff: There are a couple answers to this. First of all, someone like Truex or Denny Hamlin would want to end on a more positive note and beat all the championship drivers to win the season finale. But there’s still the competitive edge when it comes to playoff drivers: they can still go up or down in points. For example, Bubba Wallace is ranked ninth in points. He never finished better than 19th in the standings, so a top 10 finish in the final points is a big step up. Hamlin could also finish fifth in points (a “best of the rest” spot, so to speak) for the second straight season.
Jordan: Looking at this from Truex’s perspective, there’s sure to be a level of frustration (and perhaps frustration) with how his game unfolded. There must be. But if he can get a good result on Sunday, perhaps a win, it will make it easier to go out, but if not, they could be inundated with tough questions.
5. Let’s get sentimental for a moment: What’s your favorite moment of the season?
Jeff: Even though rain ruined most of the weekend and threatened to wipe out the race entirely, the Chicago Street Race was great. Shane Van Gisbergen’s incredible, unprecedented feat – winning in his first NASCAR start – was incredible, and the race as a whole was a great show and a great atmosphere. That was truly a special scene that I will remember for a long time.
Jordan: Chicago was very memorable, especially considering the level of suspense going in. But aside from the rain — which NASCAR had no control over — the weekend was a resounding success. NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro after a decades-long absence was also special. Few, if anyone, really thought the historic short track would come back to life, and not only did it happen, but it was where the All-Star race was hosted.
6. Let’s get a little sentimental for a moment: Give us a big wild, super long shot but a “hey this could happen” prediction for 2024.
Jeff: Ty Gibbs not only made the finals, he made it to the round of 8. Even though he’s only 21 years old, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him win multiple tournaments and make the playoffs next season.
Jordan: In his second year with RCR, Kyle Busch and No. 8 in 2023 resolved the mismatch and emerged as a strong contender to win the regular season points championship. And they came to the finals. He will be the first RCR driver to advance to Championship 4 since Ryan Newman in 2014.
Top 30: NASCAR Final 2023 Cup Series Rankings, detailed list
(Ryan Blaney photo: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)