May 20, 2024

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Blaney needed only to defeat Kyle Larson and William Byron to win his first NASCAR championship.

He needlessly added Ross Chastain to his list, too, racing him pointlessly hard in an attempt to win the race Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. When he couldn’t pass Chastain, Blaney angrily ran into the back of his car.

It was a side of Blaney his team and competitors know very well. The public? Not so much.

The soft-spoken third-generation racer from Ohio used a pugnacious second-place run at Phoenix to win the Cup title in a drive that showcased a fire that apparently blazes inside the typically mild-mannered Blaney.

“You can say his frustration level gets above the boiling point, I’d have to say,” said team owner Roger Penske, who won back-to-back Cup titles with Blaney’s effort.

The clash with Chastain followed an earlier deliberate collision by Blaney with Martin Truex Jr. Blaney also raced Larson extremely hard, and he’d had it with Chastain, the leader and eventual race winner, with 53 laps remaining when Blaney ran into the back of Chastain.

“Not surprised by it because it’s him and he does that,” said Chastain, who believes Blaney also flashed him the middle finger. “Anger. He gets angry. It’s OK. I’ve known him for a decade. I could see him moving around in the car. The car’s going straight. I could see his colorful suit and gloves. When I checked the camera, I was like, ‘Oh, he is angry.'”

Blaney’s behavior was relayed to Byron, who dates Blaney’s youngest sister, Erin.

“The 12 is melting down,” Byron was told over the radio. Byron, who won a Cup Series-high six races this year, started from the pole and led 96 laps early.

“He’s always aggressive,” smiled Byron. “He’s always quick and aggressive. I don’t think it was anything new.”

Larson was watching and waiting to pounce in case Blaney made a mistake. The championship was guaranteed to the highest-finishing driver between Blaney, Larson, Byron and Christopher Bell, but Bell broke a brake rotor early and was eliminated with a last-place finish.

“He’s a quiet guy, but I feel like he races really hard and he gets extremely fired up, too. I’m curious what his radio sounded like,” Larson said. “He was mad at [Truex] at the end of the second stage, he ran into the back of him in a caution. He ran into the back of Ross. He earned it. He worked really hard.”

Blaney became the first Ohio-born driver to win the Cup title and followed teammate Joey Logano, who won for Penske a year ago. It was an amazing finish for Ford Performance, which struggled most of the season but came on late with Blaney, who won two of the final six playoff races.

“What a year,” a tearful Blaney said right after the race. “Congrats, RP. Thanks for giving me a shot.”

The title was the fourth in the Cup Series for Penske but first time “The Captain” has won consecutive Cups. His IndyCar program won back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 with Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden, and Penske has 44 total championships across motorsports.

Blaney noted how important it was to win for Penske; the 86-year-old was recently hospitalized with shingles and missed Blaney’s win at Martinsville Speedway last Sunday. Penske was in Phoenix and calmly watched the race from a suite, but made his way to the frontstretch to congratulate his 29-year-old driver.

“I thought the captain had to stay cool. He’s the coolest guy on the ship,” Penske said of watching the race with a headset he used frequently to calm Blaney over the radio. “I would say I probably was cool, but inside I was turning over. I told him before the race, ‘Win, lose or draw, you’re a champion.'”

Blaney for sure needed it on Sunday, and used an expletive to admit he deliberately ran into Chastain.

“Yes, I hit him on purpose. He blocked me on purpose 10 times,” Blaney said. “So yeah, I hit him on purpose. He backed me up to the other championship guy [Larson] and I gotta go.”

Team Penske has won three Cup titles in the past six seasons, and Blaney has driven for Penske since 2013, when he was 19 years old. He said it was a goal this entire week to add consecutive NASCAR titles to Penske’s legacy.

“It was definitely on my mind to give him consecutive titles, I mean, because he’s done everything in motorsports and we had a chance to go back-to-back on the Cup side with him,” Blaney said. “I mean, we couldn’t pass up that opportunity. So everyone worked really hard to make it happen and I’m so proud of the effort.”

Blaney is the son of former Cup driver Dave Blaney, who made 473 Cup starts over 17 seasons. Dave Blaney was a World of Outlaws champion; his brother, Dale, was a sprint car champion; and their father, Lou, was credited with multiple Midwest titles.

“Obviously, I come from a family of racers, my grandfather, dad and uncle,” Blaney said. “Dad is obviously who I grew up watching and admiring, wanted to be like. To be able to do what he did, because as a kid I just wanted to do what Dad did, so to be able to race and let alone compete for wins and championships, still have my parents around, people that you look up to that are still around, it makes it even more special.”

Chastain won the race in a Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing and is the first driver to win the season finale while not racing for the championship since Denny Hamlin in 2013, one year before this current elimination format began.

Larson and Byron finished third and fourth for Hendrick Motorsports, while Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t finish and was scored 36th. They were the only four drivers eligible for the title Sunday.

Kevin Harvick finished seventh in the final race of his Cup career.

Even after his clash with Chastain, there was still a final round of pit stops to come when a Kyle Busch spin brought out the final caution of the race with 37 laps remaining. Blaney was second when he headed to pit road, but it was Larson and the No. 5 Hendrick team that had the fastest pit stop.

“Let’s do this, guys,” Larson told his crew as he headed in for the stop.

Larson was the first of the title contenders off pit road, while Blaney lost four spots and was sixth on the last restart. Blaney made up some quick ground and eventually caught Larson, but had to race door-to-door for several laps against the 2021 champion before finally clearing him with 20 laps remaining.

“Blaney had to work for it. He really had to work for it,” Larson said. “And guys around him that were not in the final four racing him really hard. He definitely deserved it and earned it.”

Larson was the only previous champion in the final four, while Blaney, Bell and Byron were racing for their first title.

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