NASCAR Cup Series
Ryan Blaney Collects NASCAR Cup Series Championship With Runner-Up Effort at Phoenix
Nov 5, 2023
At just 31 years old, Kyle Larson has already built himself an incredible resume in motorsports - one that has led many to consider the Elk Grove, California native among the best racecar drivers in the world.
But, from time to time, even the most impressive athletes across the globe fail to close the deal in a pressure-packed, heavyweight fight.
Searching for his second NASCAR Cup Series title in the last three years, Larson came up just one spot short of Ryan Blaney in Sunday's season-finale at Phoenix Raceway, finishing third in the race and second in the championship.
It wasn't from a lack of effort, though, as Larson fought hard to keep the Team Penske driver in his rearview mirror, after his pit crew managed to put him ahead of Blaney for the race's final restart - in a similar fashion to when he won the championship in 2021.
"When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble," Larson reflected after the race. "I felt like I could maybe hold off William [Byron] for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan [Blaney] was going to be tough."
After a captivating battle in the race's closing laps, Blaney finally made his way around the Hendrick Motorsports driver with 20 laps to go, setting sail to win his first championship at NASCAR's top level.
"He [Blaney] could just move around a lot better than me, kind of be more comfortable on the edge. He definitely looked loose, but he could still push the car," Larson added about his late-race battle with Blaney. "I couldn't push the car really further than what I was. I felt really committed to the bottom. Even when I would move around and make my car feel better, it was slower on lap time. I knew I was in a little bit of trouble and was going to try to put. up a fight. I felt like I wasn't going to be able to hold him off."
When it comes to winner-takes-all situations, such as the championship race has become under this Playoff format, NASCAR differs vastly from other stick-and-ball sports, in the sense that sometimes, the athlete can't make enough of a difference to overcome outside factors.
From the get-go, starting with Friday's practice, Larson didn't seem to have the pace to match that of Ryan Blaney, despite consistently being one of the strongest cars all year. But, the No. 5 team persevered, kept working at it, and took advantage of one of their strengths, pit stops, to insert themselves into the title conversation.
"That was the only reason we were in the hunt, was pit road, pit crew obviously," said Larson. "The way we executed our pit road lights, the engineers, and everybody who maps that out and everything, I felt like, yeah, I just wanted to keep coming down pit road."
"I felt like, too, William was coming. If I could just stay in front of him, if we could just get a caution, an opportunity to come down pit road, our rolling times were going to be good, our pit crew was going to do a good job, I could come out the leader of the four of us. Was hoping to come out the leader of the race. Those guys had taken two tires. I just had to work a little bit hard to try to get the lead. Just didn't get it done. I needed to get the lead and maybe that would have been our shot."
While a second championship would have been a fantastic addition to the 31-year-old driver's resume, to further extend an already impressive statline in the NASCAR Cup Series, the near-miss just serves as further motivation to come back and have another strong season in 2024.
"I'm at peace knowing that was all I had today," Larson added. "I know it didn't look maybe like it that last run. That was all I had. Our team did a really good job of putting us in that spot. I am still obviously extremely bummed [...]. Even though I didn't feel like I had the fastest car, I had an opportunity. It's a bummer when you don't win."
"At the same point, I'm probably coming up this close, more eager for the following season already. I know where I need to improve and I'm just ready to get back on the track and work on all that. Yeah, bummed but also eager to get into the off-season, get working and ready for next year."
Aside from his continued journey to become a multi-time champion in the NASCAR Cup Series, Larson will also get to draw his focus to a different passion project in 2024, attempting the Indy 500 with Arrow McLaren, and running 'The Double' in May.
Image Credit: Chris Graythen, Getty Images