Ryan Blaney fastest of NASCAR title contenders in lone practice ahead of championship


AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Blaney was fastest of NASCAR’s championship contenders Friday in the only practice session ahead of the title-deciding season finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

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

Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace, two drivers already eliminated from the playoff field, paced the Friday night practice. Blaney was third and followed by Christopher Bell, who is one of the final four drivers racing for the title.

William Byron, winner at Phoenix in the spring, was seventh fastest and Kyle Larson was the slowest driver of the title contenders in 11th. Larson also grazed the wall with his Chevrolet 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.”

The Cup champion will be the highest-finishing driver among the final four contenders on Sunday.

Larson won the title by winning the race here at Phoenix in 2021 and is back in the championship round for the second time in three years. Bell was in the finale a year ago, while Blaney and Byron are making their first appearances.

Although the oddsmakers have named Larson the betting favorite, it is Blaney who enters the race with the most momentum. He won last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, has two wins in the last five races, and has been runner-up at Phoenix in NASCAR’s last two visits.

Blaney is trying to give Team Penske a second consecutive Cup title after teammate Joey Logano won a year ago.

Byron and Larson both drive Chevys for Hendrick Motorsports, which won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021 with Chase Elliott and Larson. Bell is the lone Toyota representative and driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, which last won a title with Kyle Busch in 2019.


AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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