Well, this is it. We’ve made it to Phoenix. The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion will be crowned on Sunday. Ryan Blaney won at Martinsville on Sunday and he easily had the best car in the race. He joins Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and William Byron who earned his way in based on points. Can Ryan Blaney earn Team Penske a second consecutive Cup Series championship in the NextGen car? Or does Kyle Larson win his second title in three years? Can William Byron find his groove after a disappointing weekend at Martinsville? Christopher Bell was in this same position a year ago but came up short. We have plenty of drivers to look at, but we’ll also consider some names not racing for the championship. Here are the drivers and strategies for this week’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship preview.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Preview: The Final Four
Ryan Blaney (#12 Ford)
What a season it’s been for Blaney. He took a lot of hits early on in the year. Several people, myself included, were wondering if he was overrated. His lone win in 2022 came in the All-Star race at Texas. He didn’t get his first win in 2023 until the 14th race of the year at Charlotte. And last week he got a win on a short, flat track at Martinsville (his third win of the year). His team absolutely nailed the setup last weekend and he led 145 laps on his way to the win. Based on track history, he seems poised for a win. He has momentum as well, but he’s finished second in back-to-back races at Phoenix. But in two of three NextGen races at Phoenix, he’s led over 100 laps as well. He earned his place in this race and has everyone on high alert.
Kyle Larson (#5 Chevrolet)
Larson has a win here from the championship race two years ago. He was easily the most dominant driver in 2021. That championship was well deserved. He had one of the best cars in this race in the Spring, evidenced by the fact he led over 200 laps. He may have finished fourth but you have to imagine they’ll try to match the setup. Larson has shown up with the best car numerous times this year. However, he’s struggled with closure at times. Either way, he has five wins on the year if you include the All-Star race. He won Richmond in the Spring, was great here in the Spring, and was solid at New Hampshire and North Wilkesboro. He seems poised for a second title in three years.
Christopher Bell (#20 Toyota)
Bell has the luxury of being in a Joe Gibbs Racing car. I’ve mentioned this ad nauseam, but these cars thrive on flat tracks. But Bell has never led a lap at Phoenix. Fortunately, he’s been the king of qualifying in the playoffs. Perhaps he lands the pole again? He has just two wins on the season and neither of them has come on comparable tracks. However, New Hampshire is a comparable track and he’s historically run very well there between the Xfinity and Cup Series. He’s not my favorite to win, but he was in this position a year ago. And he came up short. He’s accustomed to the stage this weekend and will make a few of my lineups.
William Byron (#24 Chevrolet)
Casual fans will point to his win at Phoenix earlier this year and fall back on that. However, he may have had the third-best car in the race. Larson consistently ran well and had a better driver rating. Even Kevin Harvick was making a late push to get to the lead, but his bid fell short. But Byron won and that’s all that matters ultimately. He has six wins on a variety of tracks this year. But he had a horrible car last week. He even voiced his displeasure with the setup after practice on Saturday. But he’s fortunate to move on and race for a championship. It’s his first appearance in the championship four and fortunately for him, he did win here in the Spring.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Preview: Wouldn’t Bet Against Them
Joey Logano (#22 Ford)
Logano won this race and the Championship a year ago. His teammate is running for the title and I’m sure he’ll do his part to help out Blaney. That can come in a variety of ways. It could be sharing notes regarding last year’s setup. Maybe working together to get him up front. Who knows? Logano made last week’s article, and for arguably the same reasons I think he’s in play again this week. He’s won here three times and in three of his last six races at Phoenix, he’s led over 100 laps. Tracks like Gateway, Martinsville, Richmond, and Phoenix are right in his wheelhouse and he seems to always finish well at these tracks.
Kevin Harvick (#4 Ford)
Embrace it, folks. It’s the last time we’ll be able to play Kevin Harvick in DFS. Now sure, maybe he steps in for a race or two in the future. Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs a race in the Xfinity Series every year. But it’s Harvick’s swan song. In his last 26 races at Phoenix, he’s had at least a 100.0 driver rating in 22 of them. And in two of those races he was at 97.9 and 99.9 so he was knocking on the door. He’s won here nine times in his career. But for some context, this track did undergo a repave and reconfiguration in 2019. He’s finished fifth, fifth, and sixth in the three NextGen races here and had a car that could’ve won in the Spring. I won’t be sleeping on Harvick in his final race at a track he loves. Neither should you.
Chase Elliott (#9 Chevrolet)
So Elliott is no longer eligible in the owners’ championship. All he has to race for now is a win. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. He didn’t race here in the Spring because he was out with an injury. Elliott won this race three years ago when he won his first career championship. He did manage to get up front and lead 83 laps last week, but I’d really like to see some speed in practice to be optimistic about playing him come Sunday.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Preview: The Sleepers
Aric Almirola (#10 Ford)
Similar to last week, Almirola isn’t much of a “sleeper” in the truest sense. Almirola popped up in the weekend Xfinity 500 Picks article as a nice contrarian play and I played him in my FanDuel lineup. He lost the lead to Blaney, but he still finished second. Even more impressive was the fact he got out front for 66 laps. He loves these short, flat tracks and Phoenix is again a track he could perform well at. His result in the Spring sticks out like a sore thumb. He did get into the wall and lost a wheel so he finished four laps down. Similar to Harvick, it sounds like this is his final race as well. This track is still a specialty that plays to his strengths. There’s top 10 equity with Almirola similar to last week.
Chase Briscoe (#14 Ford)
Briscoe, like Almirola, had a solid showing last week at Martinsville. He didn’t lead any laps, but he did have 20 fastest laps and finished fourth. Everything we said about Briscoe a week ago can once again apply to this short, flat track. Moreover, his lone career Cup Series win came at Phoenix in the Spring of 2022. In the NextGen car, he’s never finished worse than seventh at this track. I hate to sound like a broken record with Briscoe and Almirola. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they both qualified well. There’s plenty of Tournament appeal with these two drivers.
A.J. Allmendinger (#16 Chevrolet)
There’s a little uncertainty regarding Allmendinger’s status with Kaulig Racing next year. And I don’t quite get it. Since this team decided to go racing in the Cup Series, he’s gotten them a pair of wins. Sure, they’re on road courses. But they count. Not to mention, he’s been vital to the team’s development in the Xfinity Series. Kaulig Racing likely isn’t where it is without Allmendinger. So it’s surprising to hear Ty Dillon might replace him in the 16-car next year. But for this race, Dinger has some appeal as a cheap play. In three NextGen Cup Series races at Phoenix, he’s finished 20th or better in each of them.