Mike Kerchner

KERCHNER: Championship 4 Reflects Short-Track Roots

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — NASCAR racing has always been deeply rooted in the short-track scene.

That fact was clearly on display as NASCAR concluded its 75th anniversary season at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway. All of the Championship 4 contenders in the NASCAR Cup Series came from short-track backgrounds and continue to have connections to — or are frequent competitors at – America’s grassroots race tracks.

Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Ryan Blaney come from the short-track world and no matter which driver prevailed during the 36th and final race of the season, legions of short-track fans were going to have a certain sense of pride in NASCAR’s new king.

Larson, who drives a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, was the only one of the four to have previously earned the Cup Series title (2021), and he is the oldest of the quartet at age 31.

November 5,  2023 Avondale, AZ, NASCAR Cup Series Championship race action Credit Ivan Veldhuizen – Speed Sport News
Ryan Blaney celebrates winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway. (Ivan Veldhuizen photo)

His ties to short-track racing are well documented and he continues to compete on the country’s bullrings, though, his schedule was somewhat lighter this year with mostly winged sprint car events on his slate. He won 10 sprint car features this season and claimed the inaugural title in the High Limit Racing Series, which he co-owns with his brother-in-law, Brad Sweet.

Larson, who cut his teeth racing sprint cars and midgets as a teenager beginning in his native California, also ran a handful of dirt late model races, a dirt modified feature and a CARS Tour late model stock race in 2023.

He won four NASCAR Cup Series races, topped the NASCAR All-Star Race and boasted single victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Bell’s background is similar to Larson’s and it’s often said that Bell has followed in Larson’s footsteps. The two waged epic battles in midgets and sprint cars as they advanced through the ranks, most famously at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla.

Bell, 28, wheels the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and made his second consecutive Championship 4 appearance.

With numerous midget and sprint car victories on his résumé, the Oklahoma native is limited from competing regularly on the short-track scene by his contract with JGR, but he co-owns Brian Kemenah Racing with his father-in-law and the team fields various types of open-wheel cars for up-and-coming racer Gavan Boschele. Bell, who won the 2013 USAC national midget championship, also supports Christopher Bell’s Micro Mania (a micro sprint race) that runs annually at Texas Motor Speedway.

Bell picked up a pair of Cup Series triumphs this season.

Byron, 25, is Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and while Bell and Larson cut their teeth primarily on the dirt, Byron honed his craft on asphalt ovals.

Byron started in Bandoleros and Legend Cars. He won 33 Legend features at the age of 15 and steadily climbed the ladder to late models, ARCA, the Craftsman Truck Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He claimed the Xfinity Series title in 2017 and made his Cup Series debut the following year.

While a steady performer through his first five seasons, this has been Byron’s breakout year. The North Carolina native won a series-best six Cup Series races.

Byron continues to compete in asphalt late model races for Donnie Wilson Motorsports and his victories this year included races at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

Blaney is a third-generation short-track racer. His grandfather, Lou, is an Ohio legend and his father, Dave, won USAC and World of Outlaws championships before going on to a lengthy career in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Despite his family’s extensive dirt-racing background, the 29-year-old Blaney’s path to the Cup Series resembles that of Byron, starting in Bandoleros and Legend Cars and advancing through the asphalt late model ranks to NASCAR’s Truck and Xfinity Series.

Raised in North Carolina, Blaney made his Cup Series debut in 2014. Driving for Team Penske, Blaney earned three of his 10 Cup Series triumphs this season, including an emotional victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway that guaranteed his spot in the Championship 4.

Regardless of which of these drivers captured the Cup Series titles, short-track fans were going to have a special sense of pride.

But when the dust settled in the desert, Blaney was at the top of the heap allowing the short-track community to smile as one.


This story appeared in the Nov 8, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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