By JENNA FRYER – AP Auto Racing Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — NASCAR on Friday dismissed the view that this weekend’s championship finale lacks the pizzazz and star power of a major event.
The final four – Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney and William Byron – are the youngest since the winners’ format began in 2014 and Larson is the only previous Cup Series champion among the -competitors.
Larson and Bell are longtime dirt track rivals but have settled any simmering disputes and Byron visits Blaney’s younger sister. The drivers acknowledged that the last few years have not matched Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, but NASCAR pushed back as the weekend progressed.
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“We have a playoff system that I believe is the toughest in sports,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps. “Think about the style of racing that we have, and the incredible competition that we have on the track and the variety that our drivers have had to go through.
“They raced on dirt. They raced on concrete. They raced on asphalt. They raced on short tracks, street courses, road courses, superspeedways,” Phelps continued. “Is there another racing series on the planet that can say that? I don’t think so. We have the best racing in the world, and I think it’s the most competitive racing in the world and when we crown that championship on Sunday, that championship will be well deserved.”
No one is questioning the versatility required over NASCAR’s 38-race season, which began this year at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February.
Still, Blaney lamented without encouragement that the final four had “no bad blood, no competition, no one mad at each other in this one.” Retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., part of the NBC broadcast team for the race, said even the final four “were just not very dynamic or aggressive.”
This year’s playoff field, with an average age of 28 and Larson at 31 as the oldest, is missing five times the most popular driver Chase Elliott because he did not make the field. Cup Champions Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were eliminated early, young fan favorites Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace were eliminated and regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. fell. and Denny Hamlin’s split personality last week.
The four standing left are soft-spoken drivers who, with the exception of Larson, have never won anything as big as a Cup title. Bell is back in the championship for the second year in a row, but Blaney and Byron are making their first appearance. Larson is the 2021 champion.
NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell called Larson and Bell two of the best racers in the world and praised the final four for “what they do to represent our sport.”
“It’s not everyone’s certain personality that guides things,” said Ó Domhnaill. “We’re not going to be a soap opera. We are a sport that is going out there to race and showcase the talent of our athletes. With that will come personality. With that will come some storytelling.”
He acknowledged that NASCAR could do more for its young stars and said industry leaders are actively discussing increased participation and storytelling. NASCAR has a deal with Netflix for a documentary series about this year’s 10-race finals that will air in early 2024.
Perhaps it will be spectacular and will stimulate interest to the depressing heights that “Drive To Survive” has reached in the Formula One world series in North America.
“We’ve talked about (how) it’s up to everyone, the race teams, the tracks, what we’re doing on the track to show our drivers,” O’Donnell said. “Going back to a little old school, some of the things we used to have – the stages at tracks, autograph sessions, things we might have missed. Taking the drivers off their helmets, taking that personality out a little more.
“I think we have a big opportunity as a sport because we have a lot of young drivers that fans can come in and embrace,” he said. “We have to do the job now, as they have, to say, ‘Hey, root for me, come along for the ride.’ There are a lot of young drivers that we need to adopt and engage with and show them why.”
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