RIDGEWAY, Va. — Ryan Blaney was in tears back in May when the crowd chanted “Blaney! Blaney! Blaney” after he snapped a 59-race losing streak with his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He was so thrilled in that moment to get back to Victory Lane and rebuild his confidence after a winless 2022 season. Little did Blaney know at the time that his Coca-Cola 600 win jump-started his march into the Cup Series’ championship race.
Blaney will race for his first Cup title after qualifying for the championship-deciding finale with a Sunday win at Martinsville Speedway. His third win of the season — equaling his career best — put him in the final four next week at Phoenix Raceway, where he will race Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron for the Cup championship.
“All you want is a shot at a championship. You get your shot when the playoffs start, if you make ’em, OK, you have a shot. But then your real shot is if you get to Phoenix, right?” Blaney said. “It’s just nice to have an opportunity to actually race for a championship.
“I don’t think you can ever count anybody else out, any team out. It’s about peaking at the right time. Our group is doing that.”
Byron, who led the Cup Series with six wins this season, earned the fourth and final slot in the championship by limping to a 13th-place finish. Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned all season and edged Denny Hamlin, who finished third at Martinsville on Sunday, by eight points to qualify for a shot at the championship.
Blaney and Byron will race Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup championship will go to the highest-finishing driver.
Larson and Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports a pair of Chevrolets in the final four, Bell is in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Blaney drives a Ford for Team Penske. Blaney can give Roger Penske back-to-back titles following Joey Logano’s win last year.
Larson is the only driver in the field with a Cup title and returns to the final four for the second time in three years. Bell is back in the championship for the second consecutive year; Blaney and Byron are racing for the Cup title for the first time.
Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion and pole-sitter Sunday, was eliminated from title contention along with Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing, Chris Buescher of RFK Racing and Hamlin.
Truex finished 12th to cap what has been a terrible playoffs for the Gibbs driver. He was flagged for speeding earlier in the race.
“It’s just a dogfight. I don’t know. We gave it a hell of an effort,” said Truex. “Really disappointed. It’s devastating. That’s racing. We’ve had some bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything. Like I said, some years it feels like it’s your year, some years it feels like it’s not. I just feel we couldn’t do anything right.”
The season-ending championship race at Phoenix Raceway, where Larson, Bell, Blaney and Byron will race for the Cup title. The highest-finishing driver among the final four claims the championship. Joey Logano won his second title a year ago by winning Phoenix but has already been eliminated from the playoffs. Byron won at Phoenix in the spring.