NASHVILLE — On Thursday night at the Music City Center, the NASCAR Champion’s Week festivities concluded with the honoring of Ryan Blaney, who reached the pinnacle of the sport — claiming the NASCAR Cup Series title — by outdueling three other Championship 4 contenders Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
The 29-year-old Blaney finished second to Ross Chastain in the season finale but crossed the finish line ahead of playoff drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron — both representing Hendrick Motorsports –to earn his first Cup championship and the second in a row for team owner Roger Penske.
“I know, all the competitors, we don’t agree all the time, but it is a true honor to race with the best in the world on a weekly basis, and I do appreciate that,” Blaney said after an introduction from NASCAR President Steve Phelps and a welcome to the stage from one of Blaney’s favorite bands, Whiskey Myers.
Blaney comes from a racing family that includes his father, Dave Blaney, and uncle, Dale Blaney, both superstars in the sprint car realm.
“Obviously, growing up, watching Dad race, that’s just what I wanted to do, and I wanted to be like my Dad,” Blaney said. “I was super lucky to be able to see that at a young age and get the whole spectrum of seeing what it’s like as a driver, seeing how teams operated.”
Blaney had special praise for team owner Roger Penske, who has fielded Cup cars for Blaney for the last six seasons.
“Roger and (wife) Kathy Penske — it’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since we first met,” Blaney said. “As a kid, there’s nothing more I wanted to do than to win you a championship and just be successful, because I was such a big fan of you, not only in NASCAR but in every form of motorsport.
“I have such a huge respect for what you did. You stuck with me for over 10 years, and it’s been unbelievable.”
Blaney delivered Penske’s first back-to-back Cup championships this season, with Jonathan Hassler as his crew chief.
“Ryan is the champion, but think about his position in the garage area with other teams and other drivers,” Penske said. “He’s a champion with them, too. It’s very important, as you climb the ladder in this sport.”
Chase Elliot won the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award for the sixth straight year. Justin Allgaier and Hailie Deegan were the most popular drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series, respectively.
Elliott, who is 10 short of the 16 Most Popular Driver Awards won by his father, Bill Elliott, appeared on stage with a sling on his left arm, indicative of recent offseason shoulder surgery.
Ty Gibbs was named Sunoco Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s top series.
“It’s been a great year, and we want to keep going,” said Gibbs, who scored 10 top-10 finishes with a best result of fourth in his first full-time season.
All 16 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers appeared on stage during the award ceremony. Veteran Michael McDowell perhaps had the best laugh line of the evening.
“It’s taken me a long time not to suck,” said McDowell, a former Daytona 500 winner who earned his second career victory on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course this year.
Kevin Harvick summed up his retirement from full-time Cup racing with a poignant image.
“When I got out of my car in Phoenix, there wasn’t another (race),” said Harvick, who is leaving full-time racing after 23 Cup seasons.
NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton had high praise for Harvick, who will remain prominent in the sport as an analyst in the FOX Sports booth.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to everybody in this room,” Harvick said. “It’s been a heck of a ride. … Where’s Bubba (Wallace)? He bet me $100 I’d cry like a baby — I won $100. Thank you!”
Brad Keselowski, co-owner/driver at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, pointed to the progress the organization has made in 2023, with both Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher, a three-time winner, qualifying for the playoffs.
Driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, Cole Custer bested Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer and John Hunter Nemechek to win his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
Custer returned to the Xfinity Series this season after three years in NASCAR’s top division.
“I think he’s matured a lot, and it’s very gratifying to see him win the Xfinity Series championship,” team owner Gene Haas said.
NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell brought Custer to the stage with high praise for the title-winning performance at Phoenix.
“He dug deep, like he always does,” O’Donnell said, referencing the nail-biting restarts late in the championship race.
“At the end of that race in Phoenix, when we held that championship trophy, I’ve never been more proud to be a part of that (team),” Custer said. “To the whole team, thank you for believing in me — I love you guys.”
Custer also acknowledged the help and advice he received from Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion.
In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Ben Rhodes won his second title for ThorSport Racing, beating Grant Enfinger, Carson Hocevar and Corey Heim in the Championship 4 finale. Also notable in the Truck Series was Sunoco Rookie of the Year Nick Sanchez, the only rookie driver to qualify for the playoffs this season.
Rhodes finished the season with Rich Lushes as his crew chief after two in-season changes to that vital role.
Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of racing development and strategy, introduced Rhodes for his champion’s speech.
“I can’t speak for everyone on the team,” Rhodes said, “but I can say they had incredible tenacity. We went through a lot of adversity, and not once did I hear anyone complain. … While I stand before you tonight taking recognition, I really defer that to my team, without which none of it would have been possible.”
Carson Hocevar and John Hunter Nemechek earned respective driver of the year honors in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series, while Christopher Bell won the 2023 Busch Light Pole Award for his career-best six pole positions this year.
Kurt Busch held back tears as he was recognized for a NASCAR career that spanned more than two decades.
“I want to say thank you to everyone in this room and everyone in this industry for supporting me for all these years,” said Busch, the 2004 series champion. “I want to thank my father, my mother and my brother Kyle — we always pushed each other to get to the next level.”
NASCAR Chairman Jim France presented the Bill France Award of Excellence to Rich Kramer, chairman, president and CEO of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
“I’m completely humbled by this acknowledgment,” Kramer said. “The team you see at the track each weekend — anything I’m acknowledged for is due to them. … Goodyear is a long-term partner of NASCAR, I think, because we’re cut out of the same cloth.”
Lesa France Kennedy, executive vice chair of NASCAR, announced Molly Moran, a volunteer at Comfort Zone Camp, as the winner of this year’s prestigious Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award.
Comfort Zone Camp is a non-profit bereavement organization that transforms the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, primary caregiver, or significant person.
Ryan Vargas was honored as Comcast Community Champion of the Year for his work with FACES, the National Craniofacial Association. Diagnosed with craniosynostosis as a child, Vargas serves as a board member of FACES and earned a $60,000 donation from Comcast and Xfinity for the organization.
Sherry Pollex, long-time partner of 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., was honored with the NMPA Myers Brothers Award. Pollex lost a valiant, nine-year battle against ovarian cancer this year.