AVONDALE, Ariz. – Respect is the theme for Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, William Byron and Ryan Blaney heading into the most important race of the NASCAR Cup season.
There is a level of respect between the four drivers contending for the championship. They won't besmirch each other ahead the title race. Bell, Blaney, Byron and Larson also have confidence they will receive respect from other drivers in the Cup field.
The Championship 4 drivers met with the media after the final qualifying session of the season. They addressed a number of questions about the playoffs, the season finale at Phoenix and the importance of qualifying.
Here’s what Bell, Blaney, Byron and Larson had to say during their media sessions.
On racing non-playoff drivers:
Blaney: Yeah, I mean, you're still racing everybody, right? I think everyone understands, though, you're pretty respectful of the four guys that are racing for it, racing for the championship, right? If you're running backside of the top 10, Championship 4 guy is hounding on you, you usually cut him some slack. At least that's how I've kind of done it, let them do their own deal.
Racing for the win is a little bit different, I would say. Like if you have a non-championship guy racing a championship guy for the win, that gets a little bit more up in the air. I don't know. I feel like it's always been a decent balance of everyone else in the field respecting the four guys. It's not like they're going to pull out of the way for you every chance you get, but they're fairly respectful.
Bell: Yeah, thankfully I feel like once you get into this championship race, the field is pretty respectful of who's racing for the championship. So that's really good. Last year I was in a similar position. I think I qualified in the teens. It's a long race. This is not a place where you can restart in the teens and then in a couple laps be in the top five. It just doesn't happen.
You have to be aggressive on restarts and you have to trust your other competitors that they're going to race you with respect whenever you get into those four- and five-wide positions where contact can happen.
Larson: I think it just varies from driver to driver. I think there is a handful of drivers in the field that would have the Championship 4 drivers in mind, and then there's probably a handful of drivers that are going to race hard, which you can appreciate both ways.
Everybody wants to win a Cup race. They're hard to win. Phoenix, I feel like there's more opportunity for people to win than at Homestead back then. I think because of that, yeah, the people will be more aggressive in the way that they race or just race more normal probably.
Byron: Christopher and I have known each other since Truck. We spent a lot of time racing each other. I feel like that has continued into the Cup Series. We got in a little bit different time, a little bit different path. We've always raced really hard and with respect.
It's good to race people all the way up through the ranks because I feel like you really respect those kind of people more so than just someone I guess who came in and you don't know anything about.
Byron has Championship 4 advantage on pole
William Byron is "on keel" and excited for his crew after securing the No. 1 pit stall for the championship race at Phoenix and is ready to "enjoy the hell out of it" in front of family and friends. great opportunity
On the importance of qualifying:
Larson: I mean, last night I was not too confident, just more so confused. We qualified better today than I thought we would. I think my race car is quite a bit better than we were yesterday.
I understand it's going to be a tough race. I don't know. I mean, yeah, past results help confidence, but it's a different race every time you come back.
Bell: I'm probably more optimistic because I've never won a race from the pole, so... Obviously the pit stall is a great advantage, and we gave it to William. Congratulations on that. Aside from that, I think the starting position is less of a factor just because it's 312 laps.
Yesterday in practice, my car showed great pace. That leaves me feeling very optimistic. Certainly the whole weekend has gone a lot better than it did 12 months ago.
Blaney: It's hard if you don't qualify in the top 10. I think we snuck in at Homestead at 10th, but we've been outside the top 10 in Vegas, Martinsville. Was able to drive our forward. Hopefully we have that race pace tomorrow. It's nice the Championship 4 folks, pit stalls are the top four where we have a halfway decent one.
We have our work cut out for us tomorrow. Hopefully our car can drive through it. Long race, we can get there.
On long run speed at Phoenix:
Blaney: Pretty optimistic that we can get our way through the field tomorrow. Yeah, bummed, but I'm not really letting it dwell on me. We came from 15th in the last restart at Martinsville and won the race. Hopefully we can carry that over to race pace. Seems to be our best quality right now, once we get into the run.
Bell: The short run, long run stuff, everybody is so tight. They post the practice results of the 10-lap averages. From the best car to the fourth of us was, what, a 10th of a second. That's going to come out to who's out front.
Typically I think short run cars are dictated on where you restart. If you restart on the front row, it looks like you have a great short run car. If you restart on the fifth row, it won't look like you have a great short run car.
Byron: I don't know. I think we were right there in the mix. We definitely needed to connect our corner a little bit better and just kind of get our overall balance a little bit closer. Felt like we leaned heavily on some of the Chevy teammates, so thanks to Kyle Busch and RCR for some of the changes they made, also the 1 car. Feel like we have something to race with.
Larson: I think we all saw the practice sheets yesterday. I think the 12 and the 20 looked a step better than especially me and even William a little bit. Was honestly surprised that they didn't make the final round there, all that.
So, no, I'm not counting out Blaney or Bell at all. It's a long race, so they'll overcome wherever they start. I'm sure they'll drive through the field. The final four guys, most everybody respects or shows a lot of respect to on the racetrack and gives a lot of space.
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On Championship 4 experience:
Byron: I feel like for me, I kind of go back to Xfinity days, what that felt like, because it was the same format, albeit a lot different competition. Yeah, I just kind of go back to my own experience because I feel like that's all that really matters.
Larson: I said it a lot on Media Day, but it's a totally different series than it was two years ago. The cars are different. Restarts are different. Just the style of racing is different. The way cars react around other cars is different.
There's not really anything I feel like I can take from a couple years ago, other than just knowing that we've done it before so we can do it again. But that really doesn't mean anything either.
On NASCAR moving the restart zone at Phoenix to its original spot:
Byron: I think it would have definitely been an adjustment given where it was, I mean, just watching the Truck race, kind of seeing how that played out.
I think moving it back to the traditional spot is great. Kudos to them for doing that, recognizing it. I think yeah, I won't do anything different on the initial start. Just try to have a good start, I guess, get through the gears.
On the expanded non-racing schedule of championship week:
Bell: We still have a couple appearances tomorrow, all four of us together. We're not to that point yet, and we won't be till they do the national anthem. Then it will finally be time to get in your car and race.
One thing I am really focused on is enjoying the moment. This is a really, really cool deal. What a lot of people would give to be in the position that William and I are both in.
Byron: I mean, it's nice to be done with all the hoopla. It's going to be great to get in the car. I mean, it's been nice. I love it out here. We've done a lot of fun things. My friends are here. I'm just excited to kind of do normal stuff for the next 24 hours.