It comes down to one last battle, one race to decide it all, and multiple drivers have an opportunity at glory. It has been the calling card since this championship format was introduced back in 2014, and every year has given many moments that can be remembered for years to come.
This year is no exception, with four young, hungry, and anxious drivers at the cusp of a championship. One has already tasted the crown just years prior, but wants another. Three others, they want a taste for the first time.
Something like this has occurred before, but it didn’t come in a playoff format. It didn’t even come during the Chase for the Cup era. A title hunt of this magnitude happened over three decades ago. It didn’t happen at Phoenix, nor at Homestead for that matter. This title battle came at a different, yet familiar track. And even then, the way it looks now is certainly different than it was then.
It was 1992 when a title battle came down to one race, and many drivers were on the cusp of immortality.
One driver already had a championship to his credit, coming years earlier. Bill Elliott, one of the favorites coming into the weekend at his home track, was hoping to get a title for Junior Johnson. His competition, veterans and young talent alike. Harry Gant was in the hunt, already living up to his hype of becoming “Mr. September” years earlier. Kyle Petty was in the picture, trying to bring home his first title. Then came the young talent, fan favorites that everyone would be happy to see have a championship.
Davey Allison, with the backing of Robert Yates and a family tradition, overcame so many injuries and so many wild incidents to be considered the favorite to take away the title. On the opposite end, an owner-driver that surprised many with consistency and tenacity also was on the cusp of making history. That came in the form of Alan Kulwicki, and no one in the garage would be unhappy with him representing the sport as champion.
Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it.
This year, the “veteran” of the Championship 4 could be Kyle Larson, despite being young in age, he’s been in the Cup Series the longest, and has a championship to his credit. Then the ones that are hungry for their first title, all representing teams with historical championship backing.
Ryan Blaney, knowing that he could deliver Roger Penske’s second-straight title, is hungry. Then there’s Christopher Bell, representing his coach, Joe Gibbs. Everyone expected the spot he holds in the Championship 4 to belong to Denny Hamlin, but now it is his turn to bring the Hall of Famer a championship.
Then, you have the dominant driver over the entire season, William Byron, who already has Phoenix to his list of wins this season. Representing a number that has four championships already in NASCAR, he and Larson have the Hendrick backing and desire to bring home another title to the top team in the sport.
Yet, all the while, one other comparison is at the forefront today, just as it was back then.
It marks the end of a career that started unexpectedly, but became one that defined a legacy. In 1992, Atlanta was the final ride in the “Fan Appreciation Tour” as the King, Richard Petty, decided it was time that Petty Enterprises have a new driver at the wheel, representing him and the STP colors. That race ended with him on fire, but also saw him come back out one final time to make laps, so he can say that he took the checkered flag in his final ride at the wheel.
That’s not saying that the same is going to happen when Kevin Harvick takes his final ride as a driver, but what is relatable is that a well-respected, definite hall-of-famer, and well liked individual is calling it a career.
It is not 1992, and it’s not Atlanta, but it is a championship weekend with multiple drivers potentially taking home a championship. It is not the “King” taking his final bow, however it is truly the finish line for the “Closer.” We know where he came from, and he’s made everyone “Happy.”
The end of the road for 2023 has come. Just like in 1992, one will leave with a title, and another will leave everything on the track.
Welcome to championship Sunday.