By almost every imaginable analytic, Formula 1 got it right. Early-on, it was obvious that Max Verstappen would be the 2023 World Driving Champion. His Red Bull Honda was so dominant and his performances so flawless (17 victories in 20 starts) that all championship suspense was exhausted by mid-season.
Even with stops remaining this weekend at Las Vegas and then in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen already caries the crown for 2023. In fact, he clinched that title with six races left in the season.
We will entertain no debate regarding Verstappen's rightful place as champion.
To a somewhat lesser degree, the NTT IndyCar Series got it right, too. Chip Ganassi Racing star Alex Palou of Spain won often enough and was maddingly consistent enough to win his second series championship with a race in-hand. He won two poles and five races in his Honda, had 10 podium finishes in 17 starts, and had an astonishing 17 consecutive finishes of eighth or better.
As with Verstappen, there should be no doubting his championship worthiness.
The NHRA ends its 21-race season this weekend at Pomona, Ca. The top-five drivers in Top Fuel standings are separated by 82 points, by 242 in Funny Car, by 213 in Pro Stock, and by 414 in Pro Stock Bike. Except for Top Fuel, the major NHRA classes seem to be settled.
Which leaves last weekend’s championship-deciding NASCAR races at Phoenix Raceway ripe for discussion.
Ben Rhodes finished fifth in Friday night’s utterly embarrassing Craftsman Truck Series finale to claim the season title for ThorSport Racing, its fourth. The next night, Cole Custer deftly found his way to the front on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race that delivered the breakthrough title to Stewart-Haas Racing.
All of which led to Sunday afternoon, when third-generation driver Ryan Blaney finished second to Ross Chastain in the 312-lap, 312-mile Cup Series finale. Blaney’s runner-up finish was enough to take the season championship ahead of fellow Championship 4 challengers Kyle Larson, William Byron, and Christopher Bell.
It’s Blaney’s first Cup Series title, the second in a row for owner Roger Penske, and the Captain’s fourth. He won in 2012 with Brad Keselowski, 2018 and last year with Joey Logano, and now with Blaney. This one might have been the most surprising.
NASCAR’s oft-discussed championship format has always left room for healthy debate. While Verstappen and Palou were clearly the best in their disciplines, Blaney didn’t emerge as a championship contender until the final months of the season, when it mattered the most.
He won at Charlotte in May to secure his spot in the 16-driver Playoff field. He muddled through Round 1 of the Playoffs to advance to Round 2. There, a victory at Talladega moved him into Round 3. Once there, a sixth, a second, and a Martinsville victory the weekend before Phoenix put him in the Championship 4 with Larson, Byron, and Bell.
He wasn’t especially impressive at Phoenix, which was basically a four-man shootout for the championship. (It became a three-man scrap when Bell crashed out). Blaney, Larson, and Byron stayed close throughout the afternoon, more concerned with each other as Chastain dominated and won easily.
Blaney passed Larson for second—and, it turned out, the championship—in the final laps. By then, Chastain was long-gone and Blaney was able to outrun Larson down the stretch. Byron finished the race fourth, third among the Championship 4 challengers. Bell finished dead-last after a right-front suspension failure ended his day before halfway.
So, the question is: did NASCAR get it right?
Certainly, Blaney wasn’t nearly as dominant as Larson in 2021, when he won 10 races and had 26 top-10 finishes in winning the Cup. Blaney wasn’t even as impressive as Logano last year, when he won his second Cup. In fact, 10 of the last 11 Cup Series champions dating to 2011 had better championship seasons than Blaney this year.
It was an odd season in many ways. Blaney didn’t win the most races—only half as many as Byron’s six in 36 starts. Larson won four times, and Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Chris Buescher also won three times.
Blaney didn’t lead the tour in top-five finishes, top-10 finishes, or top-20 finishes. He led only 562 laps compared to Larson’s 1,127 and Byron’s 1,016. Indeed, there were times during the middle third of the season when the No. 12 Ford team seemed at a loss to find itself.
When NASCAR adjusted driver points before starting the 10-race Playoffs, Blaney and crew chief Jonathan Hassler were 11th and looked nothing like serious championship contenders. But all was forgiven when the team reached the Playoffs—which, to be honest—is when every team ups its game. As NCAA basketball coaches have said for years, “Survive and advance; never look back.”
Blaney and Hassler took that to heart. They had victories at Talladega and Martinsville, each well-timed to move them into the next round. They had top-10 runs at Darlington, Las Vegas, and Homestead, then the Cup-winning second-place at Phoenix. They stumbled at Bristol and Fort Worth, but neither gaffe was costly.
Fans who dislike the Playoff/Championship 4 format should get over it. Blaney is NASCAR’s fifth consecutive different champion, so people in Daytona Beach aren’t likely to change anything just because their champion didn’t have a great season.
Or did he?