After qualifying poorly, by his standards, the day before, Blaney knew he’d have to work his way from the middle of the pack to the front if he wanted to win the championship. Because of the shoot-out style format for the Championship 4 drivers, Blaney didn’t have to win the race, he only had to finish ahead of Kyle Larson, William Byron and Christopher Bell.
Bell was knocked out of the race early due to a brake failure but Byron and Larson were both fast. They were also on Blaney’s bumper in the closing laps of the race. Likewise, he was trailing the eventual race winner Ross Chastain and Chastain wasn’t cutting the playoff contenders any slack. He wanted a win and his determination was hurting Blaney’s chances at a championship because it let the other two playoff drivers catch up.
That’s when Blaney took action. Perhaps out of frustration, or maybe, desperation Blaney made it physical. The contact and lots of hand gestures directed at him from behind let Chastain know his blocking was pushing Blaney to a boiling point.
“He gets angry. It’s okay. I’ve known him for a decade,” Chastain said. “I could see him moving around in the car. The car’s going straight. I could see his colorful suit and gloves. I didn’t see apparently there was – I was number one, I don’t know. I could see, like, movement when I checked the camera. I was like, ‘Oh, he is angry.’
“Yeah, the caution came out and we made the right adjustment and were able to drive away. Yeah, it’s nothing other than wanting to win and hold track position. He could run second and win the championship. He did it last year. He can do it again. He ultimately did it.”
Blaney seemed amused and incredulous by Chastain’s comments about how he should have been content to just run second.
“The fact that Ross said I raced him hard, the dude blocked three lanes in the corner of every lap. I don’t know how I’m racing him hard,” Blaney said, after the race. “When you look in the mirror going left, right, left, following wherever I go, I don’t understand how he thinks I’m racing him hard. He’s backing me up to the 5. I have to go. He’s backing me up to Larson, to where I’m going to be in trouble.
“Fu**in’ right I hit him on purpose. I mean, yeah, I hit him on purpose,” Blaney said, after the race. “He blocked me on purpose 10 times. So, yeah, I hit him on purpose. What do you expect me to do? He’s backing me up to the other championship guy, and I got to go. We were just racing hard. But do I think he was over-excessive on the blocks? Yes, very much so. Did I hit him? Yes, I did. That’s just part of it.”
Team Penske owner, Roger Penske, said Blaney has a fire about him that sometimes comes out and the championship race showed just how determined Blaney was to take home the title. Penske said he felt like Blaney was getting frustrated with Chastain and at one point, he keyed the mic to give Blaney some encouragement.
“He was running fine,” Penske said. “He was concerned that he was being backed up by the 1 (Chastain) obviously to the 5 (Larson), which he really wasn’t. Calming him down. He was doing a great job. The guys, Jonathan (Hassler, crew chief), the team, good pit stops, good strategy on getting their car right. It’s more to say, Hey, you’re doing a good job. I told him before the race, Win, lose or draw, you’re a champion.”
And that is exactly how Blaney left Phoenix Raceway – the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Champion.