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Friday 5: Who is NASCAR's driver of the year?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ryan Blaney’s first Cup championship was celebrated Thursday night at the NASCAR Awards, but who do NBC’s driver analysts see as the driver of the year in the series?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett were not unanimous in their opinion.

In a year where there was not a dominant driver — such as Kyle Larson winning 10 races on the way to claiming the 2021 championship — there were other options beyond Blaney, whose three wins included the Coca-Cola 600.

William Byron won a career-best six races, had a series-high 21 top-10 finishes and tied Larson with a series-best 15 top-five finishes.

Larson won four points races, the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro and led a series-best 1,127 laps.

Here is who the NBC analysts selected as their driver of the year in NASCAR:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

William Byron

“The six wins … the win column is a big number for me and then the consistency to go with it, laps led (ranked second with 1,016). It is pretty even but everything in his line, excluding the very last race and his third-place performance (for the championship) … you can make a great argument for him.”

Jeff Burton

Ryan Blaney

“I go with the champion. My thing is that when we don’t have a dominating year … I’m going to go to the champion because he got done what needed to get done to win a championship. That’s the ultimate goal. Byron had a hell of a year, but he didn’t win the championship. It’s his breakthrough year for sure, but in this year, I would go with Blaney.”

Kyle Petty

Ryan Blaney

“Ryan Blaney … because at every point in the year when I called him out or picked him not to win or move on, he proved me wrong. He did everything this year I thought he was capable of. I was waiting on him to deliver, and he did. So for the last time in 2023 I’ll eat my crow and toast the 2023 NASCAR Champion, Ryan Blaney!”

Dale Jarrett

Ryan Blaney

“I’m going with the champion Ryan Blaney. In what was a difficult year for Ford for the most part, he stepped up in the biggest way. His wins in the Coke 600 and at Talladega were outstanding and then his Round of 8 was superb, which set him up for an impressive championship race that won the title.”

2. Owners on new media rights deal

NASCAR’s seven-year media rights deal is worth a reported $7.7 billion but it come with some trade-offs for teams.

This past season there were 20 Cup races on network TV, either on Fox or NBC. That will be the same total for 2024. But when the new media rights deal begins in 2025, there will be only nine of 36 Cup points races on NBC or Fox. The new deal includes five Cup races exclusively streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

The largest audiences are on network TV. With fewer racers there, the audience for more races could be smaller. But the streaming races could reach the younger viewers NASCAR seeks. Amazon Prime’s audience for its NFL games is seven years younger than the average age of fans watching NFL games on linear TV.

“Like anything in life, there’s usually a trade-off somewhere,” Brad Keselowski, co-owner or RFK Racing, said. “I suspect there’s going to be some trade-offs with respect to partnership models and different strategies.”

Car owner Roger Penske applauds the move by NASCAR to add broadcast partners.

“I think there’s a time period here going on where people are moving from linear TV and certainly network television,” Penske said. “Believe me, if NBC and Fox and the other partners didn’t believe that there was value in what they put together, NASCAR wouldn’t have gotten $7.7 billion, so I have to go along with the experts on that.

“To me, it’s a great move. I think putting a package together today in this environment is amazing. Getting more people interested will give us even more capability. I think from a sponsor standpoint, we’ve been able to attract sponsors because of the existing television package and it was obviously not all on network, and I think we’re just going to have to see how that plays out."

 With this deal done, NASCAR can focus on completing a deal with teams on the charter system.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said earlier this week on a webinar that “our race teams, by and large, are losing money at the Cup level.” He said keys to fixing that will be to provide more money from the media rights package to teams and creating a cost cap for teams.

Denny Hamlin, co-owner with Michael Jordan of 23XI Racing, said NASCAR has talked to teams about the new media rights deal.

“I think that there will be a short-term impact and there will be a long-term impact,” Hamlin said. “Now impact could be positive or negative. It’s yet to be seen.

“NASCAR mentioned some numbers to us of what they thought the impact would be percentage wise. So then we have to figure out what does that mean to our bottom line because, ultimately, what we care about is are we sustainable? There’s a number that we need to be sustainable and can we get to that number now with all the new facts.”

3. A new pathway to NASCAR?

There are so many different paths to the Cup Series. Just look at those running for the Cup title last month at Phoenix. While Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell came from dirt track racing, William Byron started in iRacing and champion Ryan Blaney came from the Super Late Model ranks.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks co-owners of the Cars Tour Late Model Series, it’s easy to wonder if there’s a way they could make it so their series champion got to compete in a Craftsman Truck or Xfinity Series race the following season.

“I like the idea,” Earnhardt said. “I think it would be pretty cool. I’d be nervous because we’d want a driver to go out there and be successful.”

Earnhardt also noted a financial challenge, saying it would cost about $25,000 to be in a “decent” Truck for one race. The cost would be more for a high-caliber ride in the Xfinity Series.

Such a concept is not new.

The NTT IndyCar Series has rewarded the Indy NXT by Firestone champion with financial benefits to advance to the IndyCar Series since 2012.

Christian Rasmussen, who won the Indy NXT title this past season, received $850,000 to be applied to an oval test at Texas Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 open test and rookie orientation program, an entry in the 2024 Indy 500 and an entry for an additional IndyCar race in 2024.

Others who have received this benefit after winning the Indy NXT title include Pato O’Ward, who finished fourth in IndyCar points this past season, and Kyle Kirkwood, who won two races and was 11th in points this past year.

Harvick said while a scholarship for the series champion is “an interesting concept,” he thinks there is a better way to help give drivers in the Cars Tour a chance to move up to the NASCAR ranks. That’s to make the series stronger.

“One of our goals is to prepare (drivers) more to have them chosen first (by Xfinity and Truck owners),” Harvick said. “That’s really the most important thing is how do we make sure that our guys, if there’s a ride available, (team owners) look to the Cars Tour first to say ‘Who’s the best available in the Cars Tour to go off and have this opportunity? Or that guy races in the Cars Tour, or girl races in the Cars Tour, and we should go with them because that’s got the best quality of teaching.’

“I think that’s something that we have right now. A lot of that goes to the credit of the series and the quality of the drivers that we have and the way that the rules are enforced, whether it’s racing on the racetrack or fighting off the racetrack. We want that intensity, but we want that professionalism to be upheld and taught.”

Earnhardt said he believes the series has the reputation for talent and “we’re just going to try to continue that.”

He also said that “if we can get the tour to a certain level of success financially, we would be able to look at opportunities” for the Cars Tour champion to run a race in the Xfinity or Truck Series as part of claiming the title.

4. Ryan Blaney wants to run Indy 500

Kyle Larson will run in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in 2024, and Ryan Blaney said Thursday that he would like to do so.

Larson will be the fifth driver to run both races in the same day, joining John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.

Could Blaney be the sixth? Or maybe seventh if Kyle Busch can put a deal together to run it — something he's tried to do in the past.

“Blaney said to me at some point over the last several weeks that he would like to go to Indy,” team owner Roger Penske said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, slow down a little bit.’”

Said Blaney: “I just feel like there’s not many people that can do the double. It’s a pretty short list and it would be neat to just do it.

“I have respect for all forms of motorsports, so I think you want to go experience something like that. I think at my age (29) it would be kind of perfect to do it, but I just think the nostalgia of it and to be able to say you ran hopefully 1,100 miles in one day on the racetrack is a cool feat.

"It’s cool for Kyle being able to do it, and maybe one day I’ll get the privilege too.”

5. Joey Logano’s “Clark Griswold moment”

With three young children, the holidays can be a busy time. They are for Joey Logano and his wife.

That includes decorating the house.

“I had my Clark Griswold moment,” Logano said, referring to the character from the “Christmas Vacation” movie. “I was on the roof, putting these dang reindeer up, trying to get them to turn on. I’m popping breakers. I feel like I’ve watched this before. We were laughing about it, but now that they’re lit up, they look great.”

But he’s also done more.

“We’ve really taken the Christmas things this year and gone over the top,” he said.

How so?

He has six inflatables.

“We’ve got one Santa Claus,” Logano said. “I’m not lying. It’s 40 feet tall.

He was inspired to top a neighbor’s decorations.

“I got the biggest Santa Claus I could possibly buy," Logano said."It’s taller than the house. It looks absolutely ridiculous, but I won. … That’s what Christmas is about. Winning.”

And then he laughed a hearty laugh.