Ryan Blaney had his worst stretch ever as a NASCAR Cup Series driver in 2023. He still managed to overcome it to become a champion.
By holding off Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron in the late stages of Sunday afternoon’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney became a NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Blaney didn’t win the 312-lap race around the four-turn, 1.058-mile (1.703-kilometer) Avondale, Arizona oval, making him the first champion of the Championship 4 era who did not win the season finale.
But his runner-up finish behind a non-title contender in Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain was enough to secure him the 2023 title.
All things considered, Blaney’s 2023 title might well be the most unlikely title the NASCAR Cup Series has seen.
In terms of unpredictability, this year’s Cup Series playoffs were right on par with the MLB playoffs. It was all about who got hot at the right time, who got cold at the wrong time, and who came up clutch at the right moments.
In terms of total points scored in 2023, Blaney finished lowest among the Championship 4 and even placed behind two drivers who didn’t qualify for the title-clinching event.
And after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, Blaney became largely invisible.
He was a non-factor and actually went on a career-worst stint during which he failed to finish 15 consecutive races in the top eight. His average finish during that stretch was 20.9.
Never before had he done that in his Cup Series career, not even in his first two seasons in the series with Wood Brothers Racing.
As a whole, it didn’t look like there was much hope for Team Penske, especially as this 15-race streak of misery for Blaney extended into the first four races of the playoffs, a four-race stretch during which he posted an average finish of 17.8.
These struggles hampered his overall 2023 season statistics. His average finish of 14.1? Worst since 2018. His top five finish total of eight? Tied for his worst since joining Team Penske.
It is bizarre to think about where Blaney was a few months ago compared to where he was standing on Sunday afternoon.
Was this the biggest title upset in Cup Series history?
Maybe, maybe not, but it was certainly a 12-5 upset, and we didn’t have to wait until March Madness to see it.
NASCAR Cup Series playoffs only started in 2004, and the modern format was only introduced in 2014, so you really didn’t get that true MLB-type playoff volatility you see in other stick and ball sports until the last few seasons. Even then, we’ve still seen eight of the 20 playoffs champions finish the season atop the total points chart.
Yes, you could argue that Kyle Busch’s 2015 title defied all the odds, since he was injured, missed 11 races, and came back and won it. But at no point did anybody look at Busch that season and think, okay, this guy is slow, his team isn’t competitive, and he isn’t going to be a factor.
You’re kidding yourself if you didn’t look at Blaney this summer — quite literally the entire summer, plus the end of spring and the beginning of autumn — and think exactly that.
We are talking about a career-worst extended stretch of races for a driver who is regularly in playoff contention — and who, despite having never made the Championship 4 before this past weekend, is a regular when it comes to making deep playoff runs.
Heck, last year, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the playoffs; even with a top three finish in the regular season point standings, he only got in because another driver withdrew due to injury.
But he still made it to the round of 8, and now his streak of seven straight top 10 points finishes leads all active drivers after Chase Elliott failed to qualify for this year’s playoffs.
And yet after a career-worst stretch which lasted for almost four months, Blaney responded with two wins and two runner-up finishes in a six-race stretch, including Sunday’s P2 effort to seal the most unlikely championship of the playoff era.