by Julian Spivey
The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season comes to an end on Sunday, November 5 with the Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. The Championship Four drivers competing for the title include 2021 champion Kyle Larson and four young drivers looking for their first championship trophy Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney and William Byron.
Thanks to the sport’s winner-take-all format in the championship race it’s really hard to predict who’s going to win the title because any and everything could happen – if you watched the Craftsman Truck Series championship race on Friday night you’ll understand that (hopefully the Cup race won’t be anything like that embarrassment to the sport). Some things that come into play, though, in making predictions for this event are past success at the track, overall season and playoff success and the mentality of the drivers.
Here’s how I think things will go on Sunday …
4. Christopher Bell
You can always bank on a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver in the Championship Four and this year that driver is 28-year-old Christopher Bell, who has made the Championship Four in back-to-back years. Last season, Bell finished third in the Championship Four at Phoenix and the track isn’t one of his best on the circuit – which is the main reason I have him in fourth place out of the four drivers. In seven previous races at Phoenix in the Cup Series Bell’s average finish is 14.4, which is four-to-five positions behind his three competitors in this race. However, Bell has been the best average finisher, not just of the Championship Four, but of all drivers in the sport over the last 15 races of the 2023 season with a 9.6 average finish. Bell has the advantage over Ryan Blaney and William Byron in that this won’t be his first go around in the Championship Four, but the success those other guys have at the track is too much for me to place Bell ahead of any of them.
3. William Byron
Of the Championship Four drivers this season, I honestly feel William Byron would be the rightful champion – meaning if you took the year as a whole and stripped away both the playoff format and this winner-take-all race he’d be the one most deserving of the title. Byron led all drivers with six wins this season. He also has the best average finish of these four drivers, the most top-10s of these four drivers and is tied for the most top-5s of these drivers. But I have to go with what I’ve been seeing on the track lately and what the numbers say at Phoenix and the mixture of those two things have me placing Byron as the third most likely to win the title. Byron did win the most recent race at Phoenix in the spring, but overall his average finish is slightly worse than Blaney and Kyle Larson’s at the track and his win there this year is his only top-five at the track in seven career races there. Byron also struggled last week at the short track at Martinsville Speedway, and while there aren’t really similarities between there and Phoenix you’d like to see a team clicking a little better than this No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been coming into the championship event.
2. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney won last weekend at Martinsville Speedway in decisive fashion in what was likely the best overall race of his career to clinch a spot in the Championship Four, though he was likely going to earn his way into the Championship Four on points either way. It is Blaney who has the best overall numbers at Phoenix of the Championship Four with a 9.3 average finish in seven races at the track with four top-5s and 6 top-10s. It’s generally thought that Blaney might have had the winning car at Phoenix last season but played the good teammate and wingman to his Penske Racing brother Joey Logano, who won the 2022 title. His numbers at the track mixed with his recent hot hand have me thinking Blaney will be a huge threat on Sunday. But I can’t have him as the favorite over a guy who’s been there, done that.
1. Kyle Larson
It is truly the experience of Kyle Larson having been through one of these winner-take-all championship races before and having come out the victor that has me putting him in the catbird’s seat for this weekend. The 2021 champ has the worst average finish of the Championship Four competitors at 15th, but that has a lot to do with the three did not finishes (DNFs) and other bad luck he’s had this season, some of it while running up front for the win like at Pocono Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway. Larson’s 1,127 laps led this season are the most of the Championship Four drivers, despite having three fewer wins this season than Byron, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Larson has won at Phoenix before doing so to clinch his title in 2021. In the nine previous seasons with this winner-take-all format the winner of the race has been a Championship Four driver doing so to clinch the title, so it’ll likely take doing that again on Sunday. At 30 years old, Larson is unbelievably the old vet of this foursome and his ability mixed with his history have me picking him as the driver to beat for the 2023 championship trophy.
Who do you think will win the NASCAR Cup Series title?