AVONDALE, Ariz. — Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson holds an important opportunity in his run for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship. Should the 2021 champ win the title Sunday, he‘d join two-time champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano as the only active drivers with multiple titles.
“I think you can make a case for all of us,” Larson said of his title competitors. “And I think whoever wins Sunday is a very deserving champion.”
Even at only 31 years old, the Californian is the veteran of this year‘s championship-eligible quartet. With four wins — five if you include the All-Star Race — Larson has topped the 1,000-miles-led mark for the third time in his career. His 1,127 total laps led is the most in the series. He has 14 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and, along with Denny Hamlin, leads the series with eight stage wins on the season.
Phoenix has been a particularly good place for him. His championship win in 2021 came from pole position, and he led the most laps (107 of 321) in the race. He has 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at the one-mile track and led 201 laps this spring, only to finish fourth in a race won by teammate William Byron.
Even with his success at Phoenix — and success in general — the 23-time NASCAR Cup Series winner refuses to consider himself the odds-on favorite this weekend – even as the most experienced and winningest NASCAR Cup Series driver among the four.
“I don‘t view us as having a leg up on the others because we have a championship at all,” Larson said. “That was a couple of years ago, totally different race car, pit stops are different, restarts are different, the race is different. It‘s all different. All of us have a fairly equal shot.
“I came into the Championship 4 a couple of years ago with no experience in the round of four and really had been in the Round of 8 only one other time before then. It does not make a difference. If your team executes right, any of us could win.”
At long last, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson go head-to-head in Cup cars
Those who have been following the respective careers of Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson have been waiting for this moment since both drivers graduated to the NASCAR Cup Series.
For years, Bell and Larson fought for Midget racing supremacy at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., with Bell winning three straight titles from 2017-2019 and Larson claiming the next two.
They have dueled in 410 Sprint Cars. They have raced against each other and as teammates in international competitions on the dirt tracks of New Zealand.
For the first on NASCAR‘s biggest stage, they will go head-to-head on pavement with a title on the line in Sunday‘s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
Yes, there are two other drivers who can claim the series trophy — William Byron and Ryan Blaney — but Larson and Bell are the only two who have been there before—just not at the same time.
Larson won the Cup championship in his first attempt in 2021, his debut year with Hendrick Motorsports. Bell qualified for last year‘s title race with a dramatic victory at Martinsville and finished third in the final standings, but Larson didn‘t make the final four.
This year, they‘re in it together.
“I hope we‘re able to do this for many years into the future,” Bell said. “I hope that we‘re able to do this many more times, and it‘s certainly not the last.”
Don‘t expect the rivalry to turn bitter, though. The four drivers in the Championship 4 are unusually compatible, for being playoff contenders.
“We definitely have a good, respectful group that, I guess, doesn‘t have any history of having wrecks or anything like that,” Bell said. “So that‘s good. But I honestly think it‘s a great final four. It‘s definitely Next Gen and probably a final four you wouldn‘t have seen five years ago.”