NASCAR defends drama-free final four, vows to promote young stars better in the future

AP photo by Chuck Burton / Kyle Larson races ahead of Christopher Bell during last Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.
AP photo by Chuck Burton / Kyle Larson races ahead of Christopher Bell during last Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR's president dismissed the sentiment that Sunday's Cup Series finale, which will determine the 2023 season's overall champion, lacks the pizzazz and star power of a major event.

The 10-race playoffs are down to the last event, and a 16-driver field is down to the final four contenders. The quartet of Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Kyle Larson is the youngest final four since the winner-take-all format began in 2014, and Larson is the only one in the group with a Cup Series title (2021).

Bell, the driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, and Larson, behind the wheel of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet, are longtime dirt track rivals, but they have settled any simmering disputes. The other two might be even closer: Byron, who drives the Hendrick No. 24 Chevy, dates the younger sister of Blaney, who drives the Team Penske No. 12 Ford.

All four drivers have acknowledged Sunday's showdown at Phoenix Raceway lacks the hype of years past, but NASCAR officials pushed back as the weekend arrived.

"We have a playoff system that I believe is the toughest in sports," Steve Phelps, the stock car racing organization's president, said Friday. "Think about the style of racing that we have, and the incredible competition that we have on the race track and the variety that our drivers had to go through.

"They raced on dirt. They raced on concrete. They raced on asphalt. They raced on short tracks, street courses, road courses, superspeedways. Is there another racing series on the planet that can say that? I don't think there is. We've got the best racing in the world, and I think it's the most competitive racing in the world, and when we crown that champion on Sunday, that champion is going to be very deserving."

Nobody is questioning the versatility required over NASCAR's 38-race schedule, which began this year with the exhibition Clash race at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February.

Still, Blaney, unprompted, lamented on Thursday that the final four had "no bad blood, no rivalry, no one's mad at each other in this one." Retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the former longtime most popular driver and NASCAR Hall of Famer who is part of NBC's broadcast team for the race, even said the remaining contenders were "just not very dynamic or aggressive."

This year's championship four field, with an average age of 28 and Larson the oldest at 31, is missing five-time most popular driver Chase Elliott because the 2020 Cup Series champion didn't make the playoffs at all. Former Cup Series champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were all eliminated early, young fan favorites Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace were knocked out as well, and regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. and divisive personality Denny Hamlin fell short in last weekend's elimination race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.

The four left standing are soft-spoken drivers, and with the exception of Larson, they have never won anything as big as a Cup Series title. Bell is back in the championship field for the second consecutive year, but Blaney and Byron are making their first appearances at this stage with so much on the line.

Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's chief operating officer, called Bell and Larson two of the best racers in the world and praised the final four for "what they do to represent our sport."

"Everyone is not going to be a certain personality that drives things," O'Donnell said. "We're not going to be a soap opera. We're a sport that's going to go out there to race and showcase the talent of our athletes. With that will come personality. With that will come some storytelling."

He acknowledged NASCAR could do more for its young stars and said industry leaders are actively discussing increased engagement and storytelling. NASCAR has an agreement with Netflix for a docuseries about this year's 10-race playoffs that will air in early 2024.

Maybe it will be spectacular and drive interest to the dizzying heights "Drive To Survive" has taken Formula One — the international open-wheel circuit — to in North America.

"We've talked about (how) it's on everybody, race teams, the tracks, what we're doing at track to showcase our drivers," O'Donnell said. "Going back a little bit old school, some of the things we used to have — the stages at tracks, autograph sessions, things we may have gotten away from. Getting the drivers with their helmets off, getting that personality out there a little bit more.

"I think we have a big opportunity as a sport because we have a crop of young drivers for fans to come in and embrace. Now we have to do the job, as do they, to say, 'Hey, come root for me, come along for the ride.' It's a lot of young drivers that we need to have fans embrace and latch on to and show them why."

  photo  AP photo by Darryl Webb / William Byron receives his trophy after winning a NASCAR Cup Series race on March 12 at Phoenix Raceway.

Practice report

Blaney was fastest of the final four Friday in the only practice session ahead of Sunday's race.

"Ryan Blaney gets around Phoenix really, really well," said his crew chief, Jonathan Hassler. "There's never been a time that we haven't had speed."

Busch and Wallace paced the Friday night practice. Blaney was third and followed by Bell.

Byron, who won Phoenix Raceway's regular-season Cup Series race in the spring, was seventh on the speed chart and Larson was the slowest driver of the title contenders in 11th. Larson also grazed the wall late in the 50-minute practice session.

"We have a small paint mark. No big deal," said Larson crew chief Cliff Daniels, who said it is about the 10th time this year the team will have to repair that portion of the car after a Larson wobble.

"I've got no problem with him pushing hard," Daniels added. "This isn't exactly overstepping the edge. He always pushes the car really hard, and especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it, what kind of adjustments we need to make."

Qualiying is Saturday afternoon, and the highest-finishing driver of the four remaining contenders on Sunday will be the new Cup Series champion.

Larson won the title by winning the race at Phoenix in 2021. Although the oddsmakers have named him the betting favorite, it is Blaney who enters with the most momentum. He won last Sunday at Martinsville, has two wins in the last five races and has been the runner-up at Phoenix in NASCAR's past two visits to the desert track.

Blaney is trying to give team owner Roger Penske a second consecutive Cup Series title after Logano won a year ago. Hendrick Motorsports won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021 with Elliott and Larson, while Bell is trying to give Joe Gibbs Racing its first title since Busch won the second of his career in 2019.

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