Ryan Blaney was not concerned about being the first Cup Series driver to win a championship with a second-place finish in NASCAR’s current playoff series format.
Blaney won the 2023 Cup Series title on Sunday at Phoenix as he crossed the finish line behind Ross Chastain but ahead of fellow championship contenders Kyle Larson and William Byron. Since NASCAR instituted its winner-take-all playoff finale in 2014, every driver who won the title had also won the final race.
It was Blaney’s third consecutive runner-up finish at Phoenix and his fifth consecutive top five. When he was asked about the streak to end his news conference Sunday night, Blaney did not care.
“I don’t give a s*** about running second three times,” he said with a smile. “Not now, I don’t care.”
Blaney sure did give a s*** about running second with about 60 laps to go. He was putting together the best run of any of the four title contenders — Christopher Bell’s race ended early because of a brake failure — and was chasing down Chastain for the lead with Larson and Byron well behind.
But Chastain was refusing to let Blaney by easily. It was apparent that Blaney had a faster car, but he simply couldn’t find the right line to get past Chastain.
“The fact that Ross said I raced him hard, the dude blocked three lanes in the corner of every lap,” Blaney said. “I don’t know how I’m racing him hard. When you look in the mirror going left, right, left, following wherever I go, I don’t understand how he thinks I’m racing him hard. He’s backing me up to [Larson]. I have to go. He’s backing me up to Larson to where I’m going to be in trouble.”
At one point, NBC’s in-car camera captured Blaney giving Chastain the middle finger and Blaney also gave Chastain a proverbial middle finger with his car when he gave Chastain a big bump in an attempt to make a pass.
“F****** right I hit him on purpose,” Blaney said. “I mean, yeah, I hit him on purpose. He blocked me on purpose 10 times. So, yeah, I hit him on purpose.
“What do you expect me to do? He’s backing me up to the other championship guy, and I got to go. We were just racing hard. But do I think he was over-excessive on the blocks? Yes, very much so. Did I hit him? Yes, I did. That’s just part of it.”
Simply put, it was a challenge for Blaney to keep his composure. And that challenge compounded about 20 laps later when Kyle Busch spun to bring out a caution. Blaney found himself sixth on the ensuing restart after two drivers took two tires and Byron and Larson’s four-tire pit stops were faster than Blaney’s.
That’s when Blaney found himself relying on the mental preparation he’d done. He got past Byron quickly on the restart before chasing down Larson and passing him with 20 laps to go. If Blaney hadn’t worked so much with his team on keeping his focus in the cockpit, does he have the fortitude to calmly get back to the front?
“It was something we talked about a lot between me and [crew chief Jonathan Hassler] and internally with myself,” Blaney said. “Just trying to figure out, alright, it’s not fun pointing out things that you do poorly, right? It’s not pointing out flaws about yourself, but it’s important to do to try to work on. Like you’re bad here, you do a terrible job at this. It’s hard admitting yourself to those things internally. If they’re holding you back, you have to address those problems.
“I think I kind of finally had, like, a realization that you got to really get better at this if you expect to go forward in your career. You have to do this. You have to be smarter during races. You have got to think about the bigger picture. It’s not only about being fast, you have to evolve yourself to be a more well-rounded racer.
“It was a lot of conversations with myself internally honestly. Yeah, I don’t know, I think it gets easier as you get older. You kind of get more mature, just try to take things a little bit easier and be a little bit more thoughtful about how you approach things.”
Blaney had a lot of opportunities to figure out how to push forward during the summer months. After he scored his first win of 2023 at the Coca-Cola 600, Blaney had a horrible summer. He had five finishes of 30th or worse in the final 12 races of the regular season and failed to record a top-five finish. Simply put, Blaney didn’t look like a title contender heading into the postseason.
But Blaney ended up having one heck of a postseason run. He was the only driver to get a win in both the second and third round of the playoffs and finished in the top two in four of the final six races of the season. Even though his entire season wasn’t one that will be noted in NASCAR lore, he was plenty good enough in the postseason to be a deserving champion.
“I think the big shot in the arm was winning Talladega in the playoffs,” Blaney said of his second-round win. “Our team, we struggled through the summer months after the 600. We worked really hard to get better and better. Our team was like teetering on needing a little something good to happen, then we’re going to be full-on dangerous.
“We won Talladega and it was like green light, let’s go, we’re really in a good mood here. I think that’s what kind of set the rest of our playoffs off to where they are now.”