Ryan Blaney sat hours removed from winning a NASCAR Cup Series title validating his whole career. But as the 29-year-old spoke in the media center, absorbing it all with family and friends surrounding him, one of NASCAR's most popular and personable drivers was already deep in thought about what comes next.
"I think it's part of your job [as champion] to embrace it, push the sport," Blaney explained. "You have this awesome platform now to where you've done something incredible, use that, promote … you're not only growing yourself, you are growing the sport of NASCAR as well."
It's an off-track commitment garage insiders view as a breath of fresh air, a champion buying into their mission in the midst of a sophomore slump with the Next Gen chassis and increasing competition from Formula One. Blaney's long been one of the sport's top personalities sitting in the shadows, waiting for a breakout moment if he could only learn how to close the deal.
He figured it out during these playoffs, coming from deep in the field (15th) with patience and precision to bypass rivals Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and William Byron. As teammate Joey Logano emphasized to me this weekend, Blaney's newfound ability to finish races created an on-track maturity that peaked when it mattered most: last week's win at Martinsville and again at Phoenix.
"Blaney learned how to win over the last couple of months," team owner Roger Penske said. "You've seen that."
It sure wasn't easy. Blaney suffered through an aggressive battle for the lead with non-title contender Ross Chastain, bumping the No. 1 before settling in behind him. Then, a late caution led to a loss of track position, forcing a fight with Kyle Larson down the stretch before the No. 12 Ford surged past for good with 20 laps remaining.
"Blaney had the best car of us four," Larson said, "But he really had to work for it. Guys around him that were not in the Final 4 were racing him hard.
"He definitely deserved it. He earned it. Kudos to him and his team."
Blaney was still so peeved about Chastain he swore angrily about it after winning the championship, claiming he put his title at risk.
"I was not going to crash him," Chastain said of his battle with Blaney. "I was not going to use my front bumper, side fenders, anything. Dirty air? Different story. Yeah, I'm going to. I'm going to keep the lead because that's everything."
In the end, Blaney settled for second, securing the title as the highest finisher among the four title contenders. But it's his place in the sport that's now secure, with popular garage personalities from Bubba Wallace to Chase Elliott taking time to congratulate a longtime friend and show their respect.
"I'm a huge Blaney fan," Larson added. "Like [former Cup driver] Dave (Ryan's dad), Dale, Ryan. I've gotten to rave with a lot of Blaneys. They're all really good."
Now, the world knows Ryan is, too, a young driver armed with media savvy and willing to use his platform to work hard in bringing new fans to the sport.
For NASCAR, it couldn't have gone better.
Green: Kevin Harvick. The 2014 Cup champion capped a great career with a perfect example of the consistency that led to his success: an incredible 21st consecutive top-10 finish at Phoenix. Since he started driving for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick never finished lower than ninth at a track where he has a career-high nine wins. The 47-year-old started his Cup career by replacing the late Dale Earnhardt, and his excellence leading both SHR and Richard Childress Racing will make him a first ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Yellow: Ross Chastain. Chastain led the most laps in his Cup career (157) en route to being the first non-title contender to win the Cup finale since 2013. It provides Trackhouse Racing much-needed momentum this offseason after last year's Cinderella flopped during these playoffs. Chastain led just one lap prior to Phoenix while teammate Daniel Suarez spent the weekend complaining the No. 99 doesn't have all the resources needed to contend.
Red: Austin Cindric. What a tale of two seasons within the same organization. One of Blaney's Penske teammates, Cindric finished 35th after hitting the wall at Phoenix and ended the year with just a single top-five finish. There's work to do with the 2022 Daytona 500 winner after a sophomore slump never lifted even with a crew chief change before the playoffs.
Speeding Ticket: Christopher Bell. What a time for a championship contender to have the first brake failure of his career. Bell's exploding rotor gave him a dubious distinction as the lone Championship 4 driver to finish last since the elimination-style format came into play a decade ago.
The biggest buzz around NASCAR championships this weekend occurred over in the Truck Series. Carson Hocevar and Corey Heim were battling for the title when Hocevar drove it a little too deep and lost control, spinning out the 11 truck.
"I didn't even want to run the rest of the laps," Hocevar said after that. "I just wanted to crawl into a hole."
But there's no hole on the racetrack, leaving Heim an opportunity to fight back and find him. His retaliation toward Hocevar came with three laps left, effectively ending the night for both while changing the course of the race. A whopping four-overtime Demolition Derby followed, effectively stealing a title Grant Enfinger had within his grasp and handing it to Ben Rhodes.
Heim claimed the wreck was "coincidence," but no one within the industry was buying it -- least of all Enfinger. The tension Heim caused became the picture of the year as both drivers waited for their post-race presser.
Rarely has such a finish in the sport been so universally condemned by those within it.
"That was an 'S' show," team owner Tony Stewart said. "The scary part, I had conversations with people [since] about it, and what scares me is these kids watch that and think that that's what they're supposed to do."