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Does extra time to prepare for the title race help Christopher Bell?
William Byron, the series’ leading winner, seeks a capstone victory.
It’s a feisty Ryan Blaney who will show up for the championship race.
Kyle Larson is the oddsmakers’ choice to secure a second Cup title.
Odds taken from DraftKings Sportsbook.
Kyle Larson to win the title at +150
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Christopher Bell (+330 at DraftKings Sportsbook)—Unlike last year, when Bell had to stage unlikely 11th-hour victories to qualify for the Round of 8 and the Championship 4, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been the model of consistency in the 2023 Playoffs.
After a 23rd-place run at Darlington to open the postseason, Bell has finished no worse than 15th in any of the succeeding eight races. In the Round of 8, he was second at Las Vegas, punched his ticket to the final four with a win at Homestead, and finished seventh at Martinsville.
The victory in the second Round of 8 race has given Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens an extra week to prepare for the title race at Phoenix, and Bell spent considerable time in the simulator working on the flat, one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert while others prepared for Martinsville.
Bell and Kyle Larson are the only two of the four title-eligible drivers who have raced for a previous championship. Bell was the caboose in last year’s championship, finishing 10th in the title race behind the other three contenders.
Though Bell doesn’t have a top-five finish in seven starts at Phoenix Raceway, he’s our second choice for the championship because of his experience and extra time to prepare.
William Byron (+250 at DraftKings Sportsbook)—The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leads the NASCAR Cup Series with six victories this season, and one of those came in March at Phoenix Raceway, the site of Sunday’s Championship 4 event.
Several factors about Byron, however, give us pause. The Phoenix victory in the spring is his only top five to date in 11 starts at the one-mile track, though he did run sixth in last year’s title race during the debut season of NASCAR’s Next Gen car.
In addition, Byron comes to Phoenix down on speed and down on momentum after a performance at Martinsville that was mired in mediocrity. Byron struggled to a 13th-place finish, one lap down, and narrowly held off Denny Hamlin to secure the final berth in the Championship 4.
We concede that Byron may have been looking ahead to Phoenix, thinking his 37-point margin over Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. would be enough at Martinsville, but had Hamlin won the race instead of finishing third. It would be Hamlin, not Byron, racing for a championship on Sunday.
We think the axiom “You have to lose one before you can win one” will apply to Byron in his first shot at a Cup title.
Ryan Blaney (+250 at DraftKings Sportsbook)—For years, the knock on Ryan Blaney has been that he’s neither mean enough nor aggressive enough to gain stardom in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Many are the times Blaney has won stages in Cup races, only to fade at the finish and fail to convert speed in his No. 12 Ford into victory.
The 2023 Playoffs have seen a transformation in the Team Penske driver. Nowhere was that more evident than in last Sunday’s race at Martinsville, where Blaney and Denny Hamlin traded sheet metal before Blaney won the race and earned a spot in Championship 4.
Though Blaney wasn’t eligible for the championship last year, he finished second to teammate Joey Logano in the title race.
Blaney, too, seems to be following Logano’s script from a year ago—mediocre early in the season, fast during the Playoffs, and a champion at the end of the season.
He’s a long shot who could succeed.
Kyle Larson (+150 at DraftKings Sportsbook)—In 2021, in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series championship in his first trip to the final four.
Larson’s pit crew deserved most of the credit for that title. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet was fourth when a late caution slowed the field. Larson’s over-the-wall gang busted off their fastest stop of the season and got Larson out first from Pit Stall No. 1.
Larson held the lead to the finish and earned the crown.
Since winning at Las Vegas in the first race of the Round of 8, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels have turned their full attention to Phoenix in what amounts to a huge head start for the championship event.
Only two active drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series have won more than one championship—Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, with two each. We expect Larson to join that club on Sunday.
Whether it’s in a sprint car or a stock car, Larson is at his best when the big money is on the line.
Race: NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race
Location: Phoenix Raceway
Time: Sunday, Nov. 5, 3 p.m. ET
How to Watch: NBC
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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