By Dustin Albino

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson consistently had the most raw speed throughout the course of the 2023 Cup Series season of the four Championship 4 drivers. But the champion is crowned in a winner-take-all format at Phoenix Raceway. 

Larson dominated the spring race at Phoenix. Earlier in the week, he said some of the tendencies from the spring can be applied to Championship Weekend. The only problem was that the No. 5 Chevrolet wasn‘t stout like it was in March.

The No. 5 took the initial green flag from fourth position, where he remained for the majority of the opening stage. He faded to fifth in the waning laps, second of the Championship 4 drivers. Once Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney made adjustments on their cars and gained track position with solid pit stops, Larson spent the early portion of the middle stage as the fourth Championship 4 competitor. 

That changed on lap 108, when Christopher Bell‘s brake rotor exploded. It became a three-horse race for the 2023 championship with a pair of Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the running. 

As a top-five pit crew throughout the season, the No. 5 team excelled on pit road during the 312-lap race. He leaped Blaney multiple times during the event, including the final pit stop after a caution flew for Kyle Busch spinning on lap 275. When the final green flag waved, Larson was slotted ahead of his fellow Championship 4 competitors for the first time all race long. 

“The only reason we were in the hunt was [because of] pit road [and the] pit crew,” Larson said. “The way we executed our pit road lights out, the engineers and everybody who maps that out and everything, I felt like I just wanted to keep coming down pit road.

Larson quickly got around Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones, who each took two tires on the final pit stop. Ross Chastain, who led a race-high 157 laps, went to the outside and passed the No. 5 car on the restart. That left Larson having to fend off Blaney, who had the faster car for much of the race.

“I just had to work a little bit harder to try to get to the lead,” Larson added. “Just didn’t get it done. I needed to get to the lead and maybe that would have been our shot.”

In a thrilling battle that lasted several laps, Blaney finally passed Larson with 20 laps remaining in the race. Slowly, the No. 12 car inched away from Larson as the No. 5 car tried different lines to track down Blaney. 

It didn‘t work. Blaney won his first Cup Series championship with Larson in tow. 

“When I saw him get to third as quickly as he did, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” Larson said. “I felt like I could maybe hold off William for the length of that run. Holding off Ryan was going to be tough.

“[Blaney] could just move around a lot better than me, kind of be more comfortable on the edge. He definitely looked loose, but he could still push the car. I couldn’t push the car really further than what I was.”

Larson was committed to the bottom lane. When he tried to move around, his lap times dropped. The inevitable was he couldn‘t hold off Blaney. 

“[Blaney] did a really good job,” Larson said. “His team continued to improve on the racecar throughout the last few months. They deserved to win.”

It was Larson‘s second time being a part of the Championship 4 as a driver in the last three seasons. He left the desert with the championship in 2021 and fell short of delivering the No. 5 team an owner‘s championship last season. 

But Larson can sleep knowing there wasn‘t much more he could do to leap Blaney. 

“I’m at peace knowing that was all I had today,” Larson said. “I know it didn’t look like it that last run. That was all I had. Our team did a really good job of putting us in that spot. 

“I am still obviously extremely bummed. Even though I didn’t feel like I had the fast car, I had an opportunity. It’s a bummer when you don’t win. At the same point, I’m probably coming up this close, probably more eager for the following season already. I know where I need to improve and I’m just ready to get back on the track and work on all that.”

Larson concludes the 2023 campaign having led the most laps in the series (1,127) for the second time in the last three years. His 15 top-five finishes is tied for the second most in a season of his career. He also tied the most DNFs of his career with eight. 

Not winning a second championship in 2023 will be a tough pill to swallow, but it‘s easier for Larson knowing he will have ample opportunities while driving for HMS.

“We’re with arguably the top team in the sport,” Larson concluded. “I’m confident that William and I and our teammates will contend for championships as long as we’re in one of those four cars.”

Larson has a busy 2024 season on the horizon, as he will return to compete for the Cup Series championship as well as spending the month of May in Indianapolis, running his first Indy 500.

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