AVONDALE, Ariz. – Championship 4 drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron each scored top-five finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series title race. Unfortunately, their third- and fourth-place results were not enough to take the 2023 championship, which was won by Ryan Blaney.
Larson started the 312-lap race from the fourth position in the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He reported a lack of grip in the latter part of the stage before finishing the open 60-lap segment in fifth. The 31-year-old driver restarted the second stage from fourth and held a firm grip on a spot in the top seven for the whole 125-lap segment. At the end of stage two, he was in seventh and the third driver of the Championship 4.
PHOTOS: Scenes from the championship weekend for Byron and Larson
Restarting from fourth in the final stage, the 2021 Cup Series champion kept a hold on a top-five spot and was cycled out ahead of teammate Byron following a lap 240 pit stop. When the caution came out on lap 276, crew chief Cliff Daniels brought his driver down pit road for a four-tire stop. The No. 5 HendrickCars.com pit crew put their driver in the championship lead for the first time all day with a 9.91-second stop. He restarted third in the race with 31 laps to go and an aggressive restart got him to second in the running order. However, Blaney came on strong and passed Larson for the title lead 10 laps later. Larson changed his line looking for speed to make up time on his championship competitor, but was unable to reel him in. The third-place result was Larson’s 15th top-five finish of the season and he finished the season second in the standings with 5,034 points.
"Our pit crew and pit road really kept us in the game," Larson said. "We weren't the greatest on the track, but I was just hoping for pit stops because I knew the way our team executed our lights and the way our pit crew can execute a fast pit stop. They did everything in their power to give us the winning job done there. Huge thank you to them.
"I needed to come out the leader on that restart. Ross (Chastain, race winner) got a really good start from the second row. Was hoping I could get clear of Denny (Hamlin), get the lead and have Ross kind of protect behind me. I'm not sure if it would have made a difference. I was just not as good as a few guys, especially Blaney and Ross probably. It would have been difficult.
"My team did a really good job all season, so I'm extremely proud of them. We'll come back next year and try to be stronger.”
Byron started from the pole position in the No. 24 Axalta Chevy and led all of the first stage for his series-best ninth stage win of the year. He kept the lead following stage break pit stops and continued to hold the point position until Kevin Harvick passed him on the outside for the lead on lap 93. The 25-year-old driver maintained the championship lead until he was passed by Blaney on lap 105 (for fourth overall). The two battled hard for position over the next few laps. Following a caution on lap 110, Byron got the championship lead and kept it through the rest of stage two. During that segment, he reported that he felt the car was "still free."
PHOTOS: See scenes from Byron's pole win at Phoenix
The No. 24 pit crew set their driver up to restart from the front row for the start of the final stage. He held second in the overall running order and first among the Championship 4 for the next 18 laps before Blaney passed him on the inside. Byron radioed to the team that he was “tight center” as he settled into fourth place overall. On a green-flag pit stop, he was passed by Larson for second in the championship battle. Scored fifth on track when the caution flew with 36 laps to go, Byron came out of the pits in the same running spot but was now second in the title battle. On the ensuing restart, Blaney got around Byron and the driver of the No. 24 couldn’t make up the ground to his competitor.
"Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight," Byron said. "When we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight back in second through fifth. We just couldn't gain a lot of speed through (turns) one and two, having to over-slow the car and get it to the bottom. That's all we had there."
In total, Byron was the highest-running championship contender for 205 laps. Byron's fourth-place finish was his 15th top-five finish (tied with Larson for the most) and his series-best 21 top-10 of the year. He led the series with six wins. In addition, his 95 laps led gave him 1,016 for the season -- a single-season high for the Charlotte, North Carolina, native. Byron finished third in the final standings with 5,033 points.
"Proud of this team," Byron said. "We have had a great season. A lot to be proud of. We're going to keep digging hard."
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Chase Elliott finished 16th in his No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The 27-year-old driver started from the 20th position and was pretty quiet on the radio as he finished 17th in the opening stage. During the second stage, he battled a loose race car throughout the segment and finished 21st. The team also battled some radio issues at Phoenix. Throughout the final stage, the 2020 Cup Series champion made gains in the running order and drove up to 16th. Additionally, the No. 9 team finished 10th in the owner points standings. Elliott finishes the season in the 17th position in the standings and will look to bounce back from an up-and-down year.
Alex Bowman took the checkered flag from the 17th spot in the No. 48 Chevy. Starting from the 23rd position on the grid, the 30-year-old driver radioed in that he wanted to be a bit tighter to start the run before finishing the stage in 22nd. Crew chief Blake Harris was also letting him know what lines others were running. In the second stage, Bowman felt he needed more turn for the center and he also battled a late-stage break shake as he finished 17th. A strong pit stop before the start of the final stage put Bowman inside the top 15. Over the next run, he noted he was too free and needed more drive taking off in a run. At day’s end, Bowman finished 20th in the final points standings and will look to come back strong next year.
While Blaney won the title, Ross Chastain was the race winner. That marked the first time in the history of the elimination-style format (since 2014) that the championship race winner was not a title-eligible driver.
SHOP: Gear up for the upcoming season at the Hendrick Motorsports team store
In 2023, the team earned its landmark 300th Cup Series win in September as well as the 500th national series win for the engine shop. Hendrick Motorsports led all teams with the most wins (10), top-five finishes (42), top-10 finishes (67) and stage wins (19). They will look to build upon those numbers in the 2024 Cup Series season, which kicks off with the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 8 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Next season will be the 40th anniversary season for Hendrick Motorsports.