Ryan Blaney earns 1st career NASCAR championship and gives Roger Penske back-to-back Cup titles


AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Blaney raced to his first career NASCAR championship on Sunday by banging his way past contender Kyle Larson in the closing laps at Phoenix Raceway to give Team Penske back-to-back Cup titles.

The third generation racer is the first Ohio-born driver to win the Cup title and followed teammate Joey Logano, who won for Roger 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.

Ford wound up sweeping championship weekend with titles from Ben Rhodes in the Truck Series and Cole Custer in the Xfinity Series. It was the first manufacturer championship sweep since 2001, and Ford is only the second manufacturer to do it. Chevrolet did it five different times.

The title was the fourth in the Cup Series for Penske, but first time “The Captain” has 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.

“What a year,” a tearful Blaney said after finishing second to Ross Chastain. “Congrats, RP. Thanks for giving me a shot.”

He then 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.

Blaney has driven for Penske since 2013, when he was 19 years old.

“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, ’cause 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.

“I am beside myself that we were able to do that,” Chastain said. “Everybody came up with a way to make this thing turn, and we drove off into the sunset.”

Larson and William Byron finished third and fourth for Hendrick Motorsports, while Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing finished last in the 36-car field with a broken brake rotor. They were the only four drivers eligible for the title Sunday and the championship was guaranteed to the highest finisher of the group.

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

Blaney had to earn the win as he was clearly racing for the victory and went hard after Chastain, even growing annoyed with how hard the rival Chevy driver was racing a title contender. With 53 laps remaining, Blaney ran into the back of Chastain, which allowed Larson to get past Blaney.

Blaney was furious on his radio and the message was delivered 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.

“Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight. Especially when we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight,” Byron said. “Just couldn’t gain a lot of speed.”

But 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.

Bell was the first driver eliminated after a brake rotor failure caused him to hit the wall 109 laps into the race. Bell was able to get the car back to pit road, but his afternoon was over.

“That’s the first time I’ve exploded a rotor in my career,” Bell said. “It stinks to not have the shot at the end of it. We were all four close. I’m very proud of the effort put forth by our team to get to the championship four, but I do feel like we left a lot on the table at various races throughout the year,” Bell said. “I’m excited about the future. We haven’t reached our potential yet.”


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

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