This is probably not the last four drivers many had standing in the NASCAR Cup series postseason, or even a combination of some of them.
But here we are in a Hendrick Motorsports versus Joe Gibbs Racing versus Team Penske battle, and it doesn’t include the names Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., or Joey Logano.
The 2023 edition of the Championship 4 is not the sexiest, flashiest, most experienced or even the most quote-worthy. These four, however, represent the future of NASCAR for years to come, and they’ve put together respectable, but different kinds of seasons that still landed them all here.
Kyle Larson is the only previous champion in the bunch. He could become just the third driver to win multiple titles under the elimination format and at 31 years old, he’s the oldest of the bunch.
Christopher Bell, 28, is making a repeat trip to the Championships 4. How many playoff brackets had Bell as the lone representative for Joe Gibbs Racing?
William Byron has dominated the season and, at 25 years old, is experiencing his first championship battle. Byron returns to Phoenix as its most recent winner.
And then there’s 29-year-old Ryan Blaney, who has given Ford a chance to win a championship in one of its toughest seasons. Blaney, who bucks the stock car trend in not doing celebration burnouts, has reached the promised land in his eighth attempt.
Here is more on the drivers who will compete to be the next NASCAR Cup series champion:
Larson is the only previous champion in the final four. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5
Wins: 4 (Richmond I; Martinsville I; Darlington II; Las Vegas II)
Laps led: 1,127
Top 10 finishes: 17
Finishes in the playoffs: First, fourth, second, 31st, 15th, 13th, first, 34th, sixth
Championship 4 appearances: 2 (2021; 2023)
Larson clinched his spot with a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the first race in the third round. It will be the first time Larson has been among the Championship 4 since winning his first championship in 2021. His other two finishes in the round were 34th at Homestead-Miami Speedway (when he arguably had the best car) and a quiet sixth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway.
It was pretty smooth sailing for Larson & Co. in the playoffs. Larson won the opening race of the playoffs, Darlington, to immediately clinch his spot in the second round. In the first round, Larson finished no worse than fourth. Although his numbers in the second round weren’t as pretty (his average finish was 19.6), it never felt like Larson was in a perilous position of not advancing.
Larson’s season has been solid but not without inconsistencies. During the regular season, Larson won twice in the first 10 races but also had four DNFs in that span. Of his eight DNFs, six came in the regular season. But no matter how far off the No. 5 team might be one weekend, there should never be any panic about the wheels completely coming off when Cliff Daniels is at the helm. Once the postseason started, Larson and his team have looked like the championship contenders they’re expected to be.
Bell is making his second consecutive final four appearance. Lesley Ann Miller/Motorsport Images
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20
Wins: 2 (Bristol dirt; Homestead-Miami)
Laps led: 599
Top 10 finishes: 19
Finishes in the playoffs: 23rd, eighth, third, fourth, 14th, 15th, second, first, seventh
Championship 4 appearances: 2 (2022; 2023)
Bell and his team have dug deep all year to perform and it’s brought them to the championship race once more. Multiple times during the regular season, Bell spoke of the potential the team was capable of but how they weren’t showing it. Mistakes. Misfortune. Just not being fast enough.
A victory on the Bristol dirt clinched Bell’s spot in the postseason and at one time, sat as high as second in the championship standings. Bell’s playoffs got off to a rocky start with issues on pit road and Bell making his share on the racetrack. But by the time the Round of 8 came around, it seemed everyone was settled and ready to take the next step.
Las Vegas was nearly flawless for the team as Bell won the pole and finished second. It went as well as it could have, being one spot short. Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Bell won, was the best example of how much they’ve dug deep this year. Bell drove with determination, the team did their jobs on pit road and got the car where it needed to be after early adjustments took them in the wrong direction.
The 28-year-old is quickly becoming one of the best the Cup series has to offer and by stacking up appearances in the championship round, seems well on the way to becoming a champion. Perhaps sooner rather than later in his career.
Byron is the youngest driver in the final four. Motorsport Images
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports No. 24
Wins: 6 (Las Vegas; Phoenix; Darlington; Atlanta II; Watkins Glen; Texas)
Laps led: 921
Top 10 finishes: 20
Finishes in the playoffs: Fourth, 15th, ninth, first, second, second, seventh, fourth, 13th
Championship 4 appearances: 1 (2023)
Byron, Rudy Fugle and the No. 24 team have been the best all season long. Byron leads the series in victories, top-10 finishes and is tied with two other drivers (Larson and Denny Hamlin) for the most top-five finishes. Their victories have come on every type of racetrack.
It is fitting and satisfying that the No. 1 seed in the postseason is racing for a championship. Byron had an incredible first two rounds with an average finish of 5.5 and after two top-10 finishes in the first two races of the third round, it seemed like Martinsville Speedway should have just been a formality with a 30-point advantage.
Instead, Byron and his team showed what they are capable of with one of his most impressive drives in the series. Byron battled his car and his body to reach the finish, while Fugle kept this driver in the game, and the team did what they needed to do on pit road. It wasn’t pretty, but the playoffs are about surviving and advancing, and they did when put in that position.
Competing for the championship is the next step in Byron’s career. Since being paired with Fugle, the two have continued to knock down different milestones, from how far they’ve gone in the postseason to how many races they’ve won in a season. Now they have an opportunity to cap off what has already been a career year.
Blaney heads to Phoenix with momentum on his side. John Harrelson/Motorsport Images
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske No. 12
Wins: 3 (Charlotte; Talladega II; Martinsville II)
Laps led: 560
Top-10 finishes: 17
Finishes in the playoffs: Ninth, 12th, 22nd, 28th, first, 12th, sixth, second, first
Championship 4 appearances: 1 (2023)
Until Austin Cindric was moved into the Cup series last season, Ryan Blaney had always been “the other Penske driver.” Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were champions with multiple appearances in the Championship 4, while Blaney could never seem to get over the hump and played the wingman to his more accomplished teammates.
Blaney was there but never really championship-relevant.
Finally, Blaney has broken through the ceiling, and he did so with a great third round of the postseason that made it hard to write him off. Blaney’s average finish was third in the Round of 8 with speed, execution, and a solid pit crew doing their part. Sunday at Martinsville Speedway was a masterclass and a bit unexpected, considering that Blaney has gone there in the Round of 8 before and left disappointed.
Momentum is real and it’s on Blaney’s side. The No. 12 team has to be feeling dangerous, having made it this far and the way they’ve been running. Also, don’t forget Blaney felt he had the best car in the finale at Phoenix last year but played the bridesmaid … to teammate Logano’s championship effort. But now, it’s finally all eyes on Blaney.