AVONDALE, Ariz. — There’s a residue of disquiet in William Byron that a NASCAR Cup Series championship would do a lot to alleviate.
The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet took an unconventional path to NASCAR’s foremost division. Unlike fellow Championship 4 contenders Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, Byron didn’t grow up racing high-horsepower cars on dirt.
Unlike Ryan Blaney, whom he’ll also fight for the series title on Sunday, Byron didn’t excel in Super Late Models or ARCA cars.
While his three opponents were honing their skills in real machines, Byron was racing in the virtual world, getting better and better at iRacing. In his teens, Byron finally brought his talents to terra firma, but he still thinks there are those who look askance at his path to the big time.
“I feel like the odds are stacked against me — the iRacing kid that comes in and doesn’t know how to drive real cars and hasn’t ever raced till he was 15,” Byron said on Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day. “I feel like the odds were against me to have this kind of success when I came in the sport, and I got a lot of criticism because of how I came in.”
But the criticism should subside if Byron prevails in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I think it will be kind of a ‘prove it’ moment to all those critics,” Byron said.
“I felt like I had a naturally ability to drive, and when I got into real cars, it showed. At the same time, when I worked through the ranks, people in the late model ranks were telling me, ‘Man, he’s not earned it, or he’s not done it the way we’ve done it,’ worked in the shop or all those things. I just kept putting my head down and working and trying to get to this level.”
When Byron landed his full-time ride with Hendrick in 2018 as a 20-year-old, he was at the bottom of the Cup Series pecking order.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said, “because when I came into the Cup Series, it was the old versus new, and the old guys ruled, with (Kevin) Harvick and Jimmie (Johnson), and those guys were dominating races — and (Martin) Truex. So the younger guys kind of joked that NASCAR promoted us so much — people were laughing at it.
“But we’re here now. It’s cool. It’s all the guys I grew up racing against. I think all these guys are going to win multiple races a year for the next few years.”
Ryan Blaney brings justifiable confidence to NASCAR Cup title race
With a walk-off victory of sorts at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney certainly shows up for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race full of momentum and confidence.
It marks the 29-year-old third-generation racer’s first appearance in the Championship 4, but he certainly likes his chances at the Phoenix Raceway mile, where he boasts 10 top-10 finishes in 15 starts, including runner-up efforts in the last two races at the track in the Next Gen car — a statistic that makes him the “favorite” as far as NBC Sports commentator and former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is concerned.
Blaney’s teammate, Joey Logano, won this race last year en route to the championship trophy.
Blaney is not only good at Phoenix, but he’s been good in general, turning in an especially strong Playoff run with a pair of wins (Talladega and Martinsville) and a runner-up at Homestead in the Round of 8.
And in a rather unique competitive situation, Blaney will be racing for the title against his younger sister’s longtime boyfriend, Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron. Blaney smiled and acknowledged it’s an interesting situation, conceding if Byron beats him for the championship, he would obviously be sad initially at not having won himself, but ultimately, he’d be happy for Byron.
“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 (Blaney’s sister) Erin, âYou’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.”
Blaney also says even in the midst of preparing competitively for this championship race, he’s made a point to appreciate this important career opportunity. It’s his first time advancing to the Championship race in eight fulltime seasons in the marquee NASCAR Cup Series.
“I enjoy going to the race shop and seeing everybody at the race shop,” Blaney said, adding, “Seeing all them supporting that we can go for a championship is massive too — even (people) from other series — that part is the best for me.
“I’ve been able to enjoy it. A lot of people have told me, âThis weekend is what it is, but remember to enjoy it, because it’s an opportunity that not a lot of people get.’ You get to race for a championship. You get to be one of the four drivers going for it. So that part, I’ve tried to keep in my mind, âEnjoy being here and kind of take it all in.’
“You never know what will happen and you may never be here again. You just have to appreciate it while you still can.”
Kyle Larson has an important opportunity on Sunday at Phoenix
Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson holds an important opportunity in his run for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship. Should the 2021 champ win the title Sunday, he’d join two-time champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano as the only active drivers with multiple titles.
“I think you can make a case for all of us,” Larson said of his title competitors. “And I think whoever wins Sunday is a very deserving champion.”
At only 31-years old, the Californian is the veteran of this year’s championship-eligible quartet. With four wins — five if you include the All-Star Race — Larson has topped the 1,000-miles led mark for the third time in his career. His 1,127 total laps led is most in the series. He has 14 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and along with Denny Hamlin leads the series with eight stage wins on the season.
Phoenix has been a particularly good place for him. His championship win in 2021 came from pole position, and he led the most laps (107 of 321) in the race. He has 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at the one-mile track and led 201 laps this Spring, only to finish fourth in a race won by teammate Byron.
Even with his success at Phoenix — and success in general — the 23-time NASCAR Cup Series winner refuses to consider himself the odds-on favorite this weekend — even as the most experienced and winningest NASCAR Cup Series driver among the four.
“I don’t view us as having a leg up on the others because we have a championship at all,” Larson said. “That was a couple years ago, totally different race car, pit stops are different, restarts are different, the race is different. It’s all different. All of us have a fairly equal shot.
“I came into the Championship 4 a couple years ago with no experience in the round of four and really had been in the Round of 8 only one other time before then. It does not make a difference. If your team executes right, any of us could win.”
At long last, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson go head-to-head in Cup cars
Those who have been following the respective careers of Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson have been waiting for this moment since both drivers graduated to the NASCAR Cup Series.
For years, Bell and Larson fought for Midget racing supremacy at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., with Bell winning three straight titles from 2017-2019 and Larson claiming the next two.
They have dueled in 410 Sprint Cars. They have raced against each other and as teammates in international competition on the dirt tracks of New Zealand.
For the first on NASCAR’s biggest stage, they will go head-to-head on pavement with a title on the line in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
Yes, there are two other drivers who can claim the series trophy, Byron and Blaney, but Larson and Bell are the only two who have been there before — just not at the same time.
Larson won the Cup championship in his first attempt in 2021, his debut year with Hendrick Motorsports. Bell qualified for last year’s title race with a dramatic victory at Martinsville and finished third in the final standings, but Larson didn’t make the final four.
This year, they’re in it together.
“I hope we’re able to do this for many years into the future,” Bell said. “I hope that we’re able to do this many more times, and it’s certainly not the first.”
Don’t expect the rivalry to turn bitter, though. The four drivers in the Championship 4 are unusually compatible for Playoff contenders.
“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. But I honestly think it’s a great final four. It’s definitely Next Gen and probably a final four you wouldn’t have seen five years ago.”