On-track dicing not affected by off-track friendships, Championship 4 say.
Kyle Larson, William Byron finish third and fourth behind winner Ross Chastain, champion Ryan Blaney.
Christopher Bell drops out early Sunday with exploded brake rotor.
Larson admits he’s a fan of the Blaney family.
In the waning laps of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Rudy Fugle told his driver, William Byron, “The 12 is melting down!
Fugle was hoping against hope that eventual champion Ryan Blaney, in the No. 12 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford for Penske Racing, was going to let his emotions get the better of him and lose focus in the tightly packed trio of contenders.
But that didn’t happen—and that was about the closest thing to a provocative remark all weekend among the four title-eligible teams. And in an oddly refreshing moment seldom seen in sports, NASCAR’s youngest-ever Championship 4 drivers – particularly Kyle Larson and William Byron, who finished third and fourth behind race winner Ross Chastain and champion Blaney—brought a measure of civility to Sunday’s conclusion of their title pursuit.
Even Christopher Bell, who dropped out of the chase during Stage 2, on Lap 109, didn’t have a cross word to say in his disappointment at experiencing brake problems.
Understandably, Bell said, “It stings to not have a shot at the end of it. We were all four really close, and we all four showed strengths at different times."
It should not have been a surprise. Early in the weekend, Blaney downplayed talk about rivalries and pressure.
“All of us race really hard on the racetrack with each other. Me, William, Kyle, and Chris have raced the hell out of each other before, but just never have ended in an incident to where it's like no one's mad at each other. I haven’t had run-ins with these guys at all,” Blaney said. “It's just one of those Championship 4s where no one has like any beef. Doesn't matter.”
Gently cocking an eyebrow at the media, he said, “Unfortunately for you guys, there is no, like, bad blood, bitter rivalry in this Championship 4. I was thinking about that earlier this week. I'm like, ‘Damn, right? No rivalry. No one is mad at each other in this one. But I don't think that's going to make it any less of a good show.”
Blaney was right. He held off Larson and Byron over the final 80 or so laps, and they challenged each other on the track—although Hendrick Racing teammates Larson and Byron both conceded that they didn’t have much at the end to pull off any last-lap surprises.
Byron backed him up Sunday.
“I feel like we all raced really hard, so I felt like in Stages 1 and 2, I could kind of take Ryan's lane away a little bit and get him tight," Byron said. "And then once he got in front of us, it was really hard to get him or chase him back down. And then with Larson, I thought it was really who came off pit road, and he did a good job the last round and they had more speed than us the last run. So, the last run of the race, we were pretty tight there. We've had a great season and lots to be proud of, and we're going to keep digging hard.”
Larson admitted that “our pit crew and pit road just really kept us in the game. We weren't the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops because I knew the way our team executed. I knew that was going to be our only shot really to win. And they did everything in their power to give us the winning job done there. I was just not as good as a few guys, especially Blaney and Ross.”
This quartet are friends, current teammates, former teammates, and even quasi-family members.
Bryon said, “Christopher and I have known each other since Truck. We spent a lot of time racing each other. I feel like that has continued into the Cup Series. We got in a little bit different time, a little bit different path. We've always raced really hard and with respect. It's good to race people all the way up through the ranks, because I feel like you really respect those kind of people more.
Bell, of Joe Gibbs Racing, said, “William and I have a unique relationship, because we were teammates whenever we started out our NASCAR careers. We were buds back in the day. It was just me and him. He's probably honestly the closest teammate that I've had in my career, in 2016, just bouncing ideas off of, talking about how we're really working together to better both of us. We have a great history, and we kind of went our separate ways after that year at KBM. It certainly was something that I look back at, and think it was pretty cool to have both of us in the Final 4, racing for our first championship, and the camaraderie that we have now.”
Blaney’s sister, Erin, is dating Byron. “It is a funny dynamic,” Blaney said. “At the end of the day, he and I still understand we're both competitors, but we're going to race each other with respect, too. William and I have always raced really well together personally. He and I are buddies. He's a good guy. He comes from a great family. He's a good kid. Awesome race car driver. I've gotten the pleasure of getting to know him, kind of more in-depth. I told Erin, ‘You got the best percentage of anybody, of someone you care about winning this thing. You got a better chance than us, all four of us.’”
And following the race, they might as well have broken out singing Aretha Franklin’s hit “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” for they heaped praise on Blaney and each other.
Larson said, “It was fun watching Ryan and William—and Bell, when he was still out there. We were racing hard. Just a lot of fun there. And congrats to Ryan. He's a deserving champion. Him and his team have done an amazing job. It's been fun to kind come up through the ranks with him and see him be a champion, so congrats to Team Penske and their whole team. We'll try and beat him next year. It’s a bummer. I’m eager for next season.
“Blaney had to work for it,” Larson said of the championship. “He definitely earned it. I’m a huge Blaney (family) fan. That’s really special. He has taken the Blaney name to the next level, made that Blaney name more legendary.” (Ryan Blaney is a third-generation racer, following grandfather Lou and dad Dave and uncle Dale.)