AVONDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in his eight-year career, Ryan Blaney has advanced to the Championship 4. William Byron makes his simultaneous title fight debut, too, making rooting interests complicated for some.
Well, really just one in particular: Erin Blaney. Erin is caught in the middle with a personal emotional investment if either her brother Ryan or longtime boyfriend Byron is able to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Peacock).
Byron and Blaney — the racer, that is — are no strangers to racing close on the track. But the stakes have never been as high as they will be on Sunday afternoon.
“I told Erin, I was like, ‘You’ve got the best percentage of anybody of someone you care about winning this thing,’ ” Blaney said with a laugh during Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day at the track. “I was like, ‘You’ve got a better chance than us, all four of us sitting up here!’ So yeah, it is a funny dynamic, but at the end of the day, he and I both understand we’re still competitors. But we’re gonna race each other with respect, too.”
In that regard, both drivers anticipate business as usual come time to strap into their machines. With a NASCAR title on the line, Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford simply become obstacles on their respective routes to what would be the greatest accomplishment in either driver’s career.
A familial dynamic is hard, if not impossible, to ignore though. Time spent getting to know each other outside the race track has been vital to establishing better relationships both in and out of the car.
“We’re both gonna be going for it on Sunday and trying to win, so nothing changes there,” Byron said. “But yeah, when we get off the track, I mean, we spend time together and hang out. And so I’d say it’s like two different dynamics, but at the same time, I think that off-the-track relationship allows us to race with good respect and also good trust and race hard.”
Their situations are unique. Brotherly racing is by no means a new phenomenon in NASCAR (see: Busches, Waltrips, Labontes, Wallaces, Bodines, etc.). But two brother-type figures inside the championship hunt with a scheduled 312 laps standing between them? That we haven’t seen, particularly at the sport’s highest level.
“William and I have always raced really well together personally. He and I are buddies,” Blaney said. “He’s a good guy. I’ve gotten the pleasure of getting to know him, kind of more in-depth with him, the relationship side of that piece. Yeah, he comes from a great family. He’s a good kid. Awesome race car driver. Him and I have a lot of respect for each other. But at the end of the day, yeah, it is kind of funny we’re both going for a championship.”
In different ways, either driver could be framed as the favorite heading into Sunday’s finale. Byron is the most recent winner at Phoenix, one of a series-high six 2023 wins. Blaney had an incredible Round of 8 with finishes of sixth at Las Vegas, second at Homestead-Miami and a dominant win at Martinsville last weekend after leading 145 laps.
Blaney had led scores of laps in other races previously: 13 times in his career, Blaney has led 100 or more laps in a single event. He’s only won two of those. Both have come this year, with the other coming in May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“The way we were able to do it last week was great because we had to come from the middle of the pack after all the pit stuff was kind of jumbled,” Blaney said. “Being able to work our way through and be patient for the first 100 laps of that run really, I think, kind of slowly started us moving forward. I thought the discipline we all had, whether it was on the pit box, Josh (Williams, spotter) up top, me behind the wheel just understanding you’re in it for the long haul, let’s just inch our way forward and close this race out. That was great.
“I feel like we executed really good. I think it’s everyone getting better. Like I talked about earlier, everyone is syncing up at the right time of doing the best job they can do, in the pits, at the wheel, at the race shop. Everything is just kind of clicking. Like I said, you work a long time to try to get all that stuff synchronized. Last week was a perfect example of it, perfect storm. It ended up with us winning the race.”
Byron is the one driver in this year’s Championship 4 who didn’t win to advance into the title-determining round, with Kyle Larson victorious in Vegas and Christopher Bell the winner at Homestead. But Byron is simply not as worried heading into Phoenix as he was through the penultimate round of the playoffs.
“I feel like the nerves for us in the Round of 8 were way worse than they are now,” said Byron, the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. “I feel like for us to try to get to the championship race was the goal all year and I feel like now we’ve got a one-in-four chance to win it. So no more counting points. No more thinking about scenarios. It’s just go out and be the best we can be. So I feel a lot of comfort in that. And I feel like it kind of brings me back, to like I said, my Xfinity days when I won a championship and how that felt in the final four.”
Byron and Blaney each have 10 career wins. Byron has 90 fewer starts.
At the checkered flag Sunday, though, one of them could leave with a NASCAR Cup Series Championship.