NASCAR Barometer:  Ross Chastain Wins the Battle, Ryan Blaney Wins the War

NASCAR Barometer: Ross Chastain Wins the Battle, Ryan Blaney Wins the War

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Ryan Blaney won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship with an inspired drive that saw him finish top among the championship contenders but second on the day to Phoenix race-winner Ross Chastain - the first time in a decade the champion didn't win the final race. While Chastain picked up his second victory of the season, Blaney was doing donuts on the front straight with the championship banner in hand. The afternoon started with the No. 12 last among the championship contenders, but Blaney's team delivered the tweaks he needed to extract the most speed from his car, forcing his way forward multiple times in the race to make it clear that this season's title was to be his. It was his first series title and second in a row for Team Penske after Joey Logano hoisted the trophy in 2022. 

After some celebration and reflection, the teams of the NASCAR Cup Series will begin preparing their challengers for next season. While it may seem far away, cars will return to the track in just three months. After nine months of nearly constant competition, that is an exceptionally short break, and 2023 proved just how important it is to get off to a quick start. However, Blaney and team demonstrated these last few weeks that it is even more important for teams to peak at the perfect moment to make sure they are the ones celebrating in Victory Lane next time.

UPGRADE

Ryan Blaney - Just as he did a

Ryan Blaney won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship with an inspired drive that saw him finish top among the championship contenders but second on the day to Phoenix race-winner Ross Chastain - the first time in a decade the champion didn't win the final race. While Chastain picked up his second victory of the season, Blaney was doing donuts on the front straight with the championship banner in hand. The afternoon started with the No. 12 last among the championship contenders, but Blaney's team delivered the tweaks he needed to extract the most speed from his car, forcing his way forward multiple times in the race to make it clear that this season's title was to be his. It was his first series title and second in a row for Team Penske after Joey Logano hoisted the trophy in 2022. 

After some celebration and reflection, the teams of the NASCAR Cup Series will begin preparing their challengers for next season. While it may seem far away, cars will return to the track in just three months. After nine months of nearly constant competition, that is an exceptionally short break, and 2023 proved just how important it is to get off to a quick start. However, Blaney and team demonstrated these last few weeks that it is even more important for teams to peak at the perfect moment to make sure they are the ones celebrating in Victory Lane next time.

UPGRADE

Ryan Blaney - Just as he did a week prior at Martinsville, Blaney forced his way to the front to finish second Sunday at Phoenix to capture his first Cup Series championship. The Team Penske driver had it all to do in the race after qualifying outside of the top 10 and starting in the lowest spot among the championship contenders. It didn't matter, though. Blaney knew exactly what he needed when the race got underway, and he used measured aggression throughout the distance to climb to the front. Even a late slow stop couldn't keep him down as he clawed his way back after the restart to leave no doubt that the championship would be his. In the end, he led just two laps but finished first among the championship contenders. Blaney and team hit top form at the perfect time, and it enabled them to walk away with the season's biggest prize. 

Ross Chastain - For the first time in a decade, a non-championship driver won the championship race. Chastain qualified eighth and ran inside the top five throughout the afternoon. His win Sunday at Phoenix was his second of the season and showed what he might have been capable of had he been able to successfully navigate the playoff elimination races to be one of the championship contenders as he was in 2022. The team knows they can compete and win when the stakes are highest, and that will push them to continue working through the coming winter. Fantasy players saw in 2023 that Chastain's success the year prior was no fluke, and that should give them confidence to look his direction early and often when the green flag waves on the 2024 season. Four wins in the last two seasons with one championship finale appearance is evidence of this squad's championship intentions.

William Byron - Byron may not have walked away with the championship trophy Sunday, but he had his best season to date. He won more races than any other driver this season and claimed a spot in the final four, too. Things were looking good early in the weekend when he qualified on pole and took the valuable first pit stall as a reward. Byron dominated the first stage of the race and won the segment, too. As the track took on rubber, the No. 24's handling lost its edge, though. Byron and team struggled to find the adjustments he needed to challenge Blaney, and he watched as the No. 12 made the pass and drove away. Sunday may have been a disappointment for the team, but the season was not. Byron scored six wins, 15 top-fives, and 21 top-10s. While the team came up short on Sunday, they certainly didn't come up short on the year.

Kyle Larson - Larson came up just a little short in his second championship finale appearance. The 2021 series champion failed to lead Sunday's race, but he did run point among the championship contenders at times. The team delivered a lightning-quick pit stop to earn Larson positive track position in the final caution of the race, but the advantage was still not enough to neutralize Ryan Blaney's speed. In the end, Larson finished third in the race and second among the championship contenders, which was his second top-two series finish in the last three years. While not much can compare to his championship-winning tally of 10 season victories, Larson stepped forward from 2022 with four wins, 15 top-fives, and 18 top-10s. Larson started the year as a championship-favorite and rewarded those who placed their faith in him with another final four appearance. 

Kevin Harvick - A stellar career came to an end Sunday at Phoenix as Kevin Harvick drove his last race as a full-time Cup Series competitor before moving to the commentary booth in the future. The two-time series champion ended his career strongly with a seventh-place finish, too. While Harvick failed to win a race in 2023, he still made the playoffs and will be shown 13th in the year-end standings. In total, he amassed 60 wins, 251 top-fives, and 444 top-10 finishes in his 826 series starts in his impressive career. Harvick made himself a legend with his first victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway as he took the Richard Childress Racing No. 29 to Victory Lane just a few weeks after losing legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona. He would go on to win the championship in 2014 after switching teams to Stewart-Haas Racing. His driving career has now ended with yet another competitive season.

DOWNGRADE

Christopher Bell - Bell's second consecutive championship finale appearance didn't turn out the way he and the team envisioned. The No. 20 missed the top 10 in qualifying, which gave them a disadvantage from the start. With the race underway, Bell showed potential to challenge for the top finish and potential series title. That potential came to naught when a front brake rotor failed, sending Bell into the outside wall, making him the first of the championship contenders to be eliminated from contention. When all was said and done for 2023, Bell claimed two wins, 10 top-fives, and 19 top-10s to grab his second championship finale appearance. While that should be considered a successful year, Joe Gibbs Racing exists to win championships. Bell is certainly capable of delivering, but races and championships are won by fine margins with no room for errors like Sunday's mechanical failure.

Alex Bowman - The 2023 season was one of Bowman's worst since joining the series full time. He finished 17th Sunday at Phoenix, which is largely representative of what his year has been. First, he missed several races due to injury. Upon his return it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for any return to form. His final ranking of 20th in the championship standings is his worst since the first two years of his career. Bowman gathered just four top-fives and 10 top-10s from his 33 races contested. He missed the playoffs and averaged a finish of just 17.2. Bowman and his No. 48 squad have to get the monkeys off of their backs in 2024 and it is going to take a lot of work, and perhaps very hard choices, during the winter to do so. Fantasy owners got very little production out of Bowman in 2023 and would be justified in taking caution before resting their hopes on him so easily again in 2024.

Austin Cindric - Cindric will hoping that his 2023 season was just a sophomore slump. His rookie campaign started in the best possible fashion with a win at the Daytona 500 and a spot in the playoffs. That year he scored five top-fives and nine top-10s to finish 12th in the standings. His 2023 season was a disaster compared to that, and it ended in emblematic fashion with a damaged rear wheel and a 35th-place finish Sunday at Phoenix. Comparatively, Cindric finished 24th in the 2023 season standings with an average race finish of 21.6 versus his average of 16.3 the year prior. Racing's history is full of sophomore slumps, and it was always going to be tough for him to better a season that included a Daytona 500 win. However, Cindric's teammates both made the playoff field and one won the championship. More is expected in 2024.

Austin Dillon - Dillon's 12th-place finish to close out the season at Phoenix was a welcome result from an otherwise disappointing season. The arrival of Kyle Busch was largely expected to push Richard Childress Racing (and Dillon) forward, but Dillon seemed to struggle more than usual despite the addition. While Busch made the playoffs and won three races, Dillon languished deep in the order and finished the season 29th in the standings. Dillon's average finish in 2023 was his worst since joining the series full time in 2013. He had just one top-five and seven top-10 finishes, which is his lowest total of top finishes since 2019, the last time he finished outside of the top 20 in the standings. Perhaps it was growing pains or perhaps there were some fundamental problems in the organization, but the No. 3 team must figure it out and deliver more in 2024. 

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Chris Buescher - One of the biggest surprises of the 2023 Cup Series season was Chris Buescher. The RFK Racing driver turned in the best season of his career, adding another top-five finish to his accomplishments Sunday at Phoenix. Buescher scored three wins to earn himself a spot in the playoffs and totaled nine top-fives and 17 top-10s in 2023. Buescher wasn't done with those wins either. He advanced to the penultimate round of the playoffs and claimed seventh in the season standings. Buescher's best prior classification was 16th in 2016, the season in which he scored his first series victory. Buescher's success in 2023 should just be a preview of what the broader organization can deliver in 2024. The addition of Brad Keselowski marked a turnaround in the team's fortunes and fantasy players should expect their improvement to continue into next season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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