fbpx

NASCAR’s final four defined by mutual respect, friendships

Ryan Blaney should have won this race last year
William Byron has had the best car all year
Christopher Bell has the best pit crew
Kyle Larson has done it before

You can make compelling arguments for all four NASCAR Cup Series championship finalists this weekend at Phoenix Raceway and ultimately none of them really matter. The sample size is so small, one race in which the highest finishing driver amongst them will claim the championship, that everything learned to date is comparatively insignificant.

Like, their crew chiefs will likely bring the best cars they have prepared all season, the drivers will execute and the Bill France Cup will be largely decided based on circumstances like the timing of the final caution and who prevails on that final pit stop.

So maybe that favors Bell, who inherited what used to be the No. 54 over-the-wall crew, that won the pit crew contest back in May and leads the Cup Series in all the important statistics. On the other hand, Bell made the final four last year and they were not particularly good, his words.

“We didn’t qualify well,” Bell said. “We didn’t practice well. But whenever it came down to the end of the race, we still had an opportunity at it.

“I feel like most people, they didn’t see that. At the end of the race the last green-flag pit stop, me and Joey are within a second, I think. I followed him down pit road for the money stop in the championship event with 30 laps to go, however long it was.

“With that being said, we weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be, and we were still in the thick of it. This year we will be more competitive. You’re not out of it until the checkered flag falls.”

You know who was good in the championship race last year? It was Blaney, who wasn’t even one of the final four teams and arguably had the car to beat but let Joey Logano by so his teammate could have a buffer on his way to a second championship.

In the three races at Phoenix with this car, Blaney has led the most laps (252) and has the best average finish (2.7) amongst all active drivers.

“Yeah, this track kind of fits what we do in this car especially,” Blaney said. “Even in years past we’ve been strong here in the older generation car. But especially this Next Gen car, we’ve been really strong. Had a great shot to win this thing in the fall last year. Had a good shot to win it in the spring this year. Hopefully you can bring that same speed and build on what you learned.

“But, yeah, whatever we do at our shop just kind of fits this place. I feel like we’ve always done a really good job no matter what size track. If two different ends of the speedway are very different, we do a good job of making both pretty good.”

Byron is no slouch at Phoenix in the NextGen car with a sixth-best 8.3 average finish and a fifth-best 76 laps led. He won the spring Cup Series race at Phoenix in March. He also won the Xfinity Series championship under this final four format back in 2017.

“I feel like the nerves for us in the Round of 8 were way worse than they are now,” Byron said. “For us to try to get to the championship race was the goal all year. I feel like now we’ve got a one-in-four chance to win it.

“No more counting points, thinking about scenarios. It’s just go out and be the best we can be. I feel a lot of comfort in that. I feel like it kind of brings me back to, like I said, my Xfinity days when I won a championship, how that felt in the Final 4.”

Their best, has been pretty darn remarkable all year, leading the series with six wins, 20 top-10s, 14 top-5s and the best year long average finish in 11.2.

If you single it down to just the past nine races, these four teams have all been the best during the playoffs, too.

“I feel like all these guys got hot at the right time,” Byron said. “That’s what the Playoffs are about. I looked at a lot of stats with the Playoffs this year. The final four that we have here are really the top four in all the stats. It’s very interesting how that works out in the fact that you pretty much got the best four teams going at it.

“Yeah, it’s not the regular season guys that I kind of battled with necessarily. When the Playoffs started, these guys were the best.”

Larson, based purely on the resume, was the best in 2021 when he won his championship but says that doesn’t mean anything now.

“I don’t think it really means anything,” Larson said. “I think when I won the championship in ’21, it was totally different race car, the style of race was different, pit stops were different, the way you executed the race was different. I don’t really think it matters at all.

“Yeah, I kind of view us all as equals. Even the guys who are in the final four for the first time, I don’t look at them any differently than myself or Bell who have been in the final four twice. I think it’s kind of anyone’s race.”

Syndication: Arizona Republic
Alex Gould / USA TODAY NETWORK

No smack talk

There was no bravado or figurative shots across the bow between the four playoff finalists mostly because they all like each other too dang much.

“Yeah, we definitely have a good, respectful group that I guess doesn’t have any history of having wrecks or anything like that,” Bell said. “So that’s good.”

Larson and Byron are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. Bell has raced Larson for over a decade across Dirt Midgets, Sprint Cars and now the NASCAR Cup Series and while they have had occasional run-ins with each other, there is also a tremendous amount of respect for each other.

Byron and Blaney are effectively family, as Byron has dated Erin Blaney, Ryan’s sister, for half a decade.  

“William and I have always raced really well together,” Blaney said. “He and I are buddies. He’s a good guy. I’ve had the pleasure to get to know him better, more in depth. He comes from a great family, he’s a great kid and an awesome race car driver. He and I have a lot of respect for one another.

“At the end of the day, it is kind of funny he and I both going for a championship, I told Erin, ‘You’ve got the best percentage of anybody of someone you care about winning this thing.’

“It is a funny dynamic, but at the end of the day, he and I both understand we’re still competitors—but we’ll race each other with respect.”

Byron echoed that sentiment.

“She has a great chance of celebrating,” Byron said with a laugh.

Byron issued the same kind of sentiments Blaney had about how they race each other.

“We race hard,” Blaney said. “We talk about it. We discuss things in the past. I feel like we’ve gotten to a really good spot where we race each other hard and fair.

“We’re both going to be going for it on Sunday trying to win. Nothing changes there. But, yeah, when we get off the track, we spend time together and hang out. I’d say it’s like two different dynamics.

“At the same time that off-the-track relationship allows us to race with good respect, good trust and race hard.”

NASCAR: Bank Of America ROVAL 400
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, there was a five years stretch from 2017 to 2021 where Bell and Larson were the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, effectively deciding that prestigious race amongst themselves every year. They have battled each other for wins at the Cup Series now for the past three years as both are in elite cars.

Again, they have had some run-ins during the past couple of years, but even when it’s gotten heated they never back down from expressing how much they believe the other is amongst the best behind the wheel of any race car.

“So Kyle, his strength is his raw talent, his ability to drive the car,” Bell said. “His 100 percent … or the better way to say it is his 90 percent is everyone else’s 100 percent. He’s able to run the car at the ragged edge a lot easier than what the other people can. That’s his strength.”

See?

“I mean, Christopher is just a guy you can never count out,” Larson said. “He’s proven that in the NASCAR stuff of Homestead, for instance, like not even being anywhere in the picture, then here he comes out of nowhere and wins the race.

“He’s done a really good job, him and his team have, of being able to capitalize on things, executing the ends of the races really well and closing them out. Yeah, he does a lot more than that really good, as well. It’s cool to see another dirt guy run as good as him, have another dirt guy in the final four.”

Meanwhile Larson and Byron say their teams continue to share data with each other and work towards a common goal as if it were any normal race weekend. That means no overriding sense of competition between crew chiefs Cliff Daniels and Rudy Fugle.

From a driver standpoint, Byron said Larson has continued to be a really good teammate.

“I mean, I appreciate hearing that,” Larson said. “I try hard to be a really good teammate. I feel like I don’t have to try hard. I’m just pretty open with how I am as a person.

“Yeah, I do think, though, William and I are a lot alike. I think we’re both an open book to our teams in the debriefs and stuff. I think that’s important to have that type of leadership maybe to just talk really in-depth about our race weekend and our cars and all that.

“I think William and I have a very similar driving style. I think when I look at our data, I feel like we throttle, brake, steering, all that looks really similar. I don’t know if our cars are very similar setup-wise or what. Driving style-wise we look a lot alike. I think that helps us talk about things and really latch onto what we’re saying and learn from what we’re telling each other.”

As for Byron and Blaney, specifically regarding Erin, who will she be cheering on this weekend?

Like, will she be wearing Hendrick 24 gear or Penske 12 gear? Both?

“No, she’ll stay out of the mix,” Byron said with a laugh. “She doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. She’ll be cheering us on.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: