AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 03: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/DEWALT Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 03, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 03: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/DEWALT Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 03, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

NASCAR Cup Championship 4 Crew Chief Notebook

Kyle Larson’s contact with the Phoenix wall is par for the course

“No big deal,” said crew chief Cliff Daniels after Kyle Larson brushed the wall lightly during Friday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice at Phoenix Raceway, where the series title will be decided in Sunday’s championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“We have a small paint mark, which I think happened on the straightaway,” Daniels said. “Didn’t even happen like going off a corner. That’s no big deal, thankfully.”

Larson was 11th fastest in the 50-minute Cup practice session and fourth among the Championship 4 competitors behind Ryan Blaney (third overall), Christopher Bell (fourth) and William Byron (seventh).

Daniel’s took Larson’s slight mishap with a sense of humor.

“I want to say there’s maybe been 10 times this year we’ve re-vinyled a right rear quarter panel,” Daniels said. “This is perfect. We will be re-vinyling our right rear quarter panel tomorrow morning—right in line where we need to be.”

In all seriousness, Daniels doesn’t mind Larson’s penchant for finding the limits of his race car.

“I’ve got no problem with him pushing hard again,” Daniels said. “I genuinely think this happened on the straightaway. This isn’t exactly an overstepping the edge type of situation.

“Yeah, he always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it, what kind of adjustments we need to make. Today was certainly the case.”

A Christopher Bell championship would be cathartic for his crew chief

On the morning of last year’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix, the driver Christopher Bell, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team learned of the death of organization co-owner Coy Gibbs, son of founder Joe Gibbs.

Gibbs’ passing in his sleep—after his son Ty Gibbs had just won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship—cast a pall over the entire team. Coy Gibbs’ nephew Jackson Gibbs was a tire changer on the No. 20 crew.

“We got the news, and then we had to figure out if Jackson was going to be willing and able to participate,” Stevens said. “It just took him completely away from prepping for the race, focusing on changes and doing all that stuff that we do every week to worry about your teammate…”

Even as the drivers were riding in their trucks during driver introductions, the situation was uncertain. But Bell raced and finished third among the Championship 4 drivers.

“It was awful,” Stevens said. “Not just for me and my team, obviously. So that will be a big relief to kind of have a calendar year in between that and this weekend, have a little bit of healing for the Gibbs family. Hopefully, we can bring the trophy home.”

Bell is racing for the title for the second straight season. This is Stevens’ seventh trip to the Championship 4, two of which ended with titles for Kyle Busch in 2015 and 2019.

Johnathan Hassler could lead team Penske to a second straight Cup championship

To borrow a famous Yogi-ism, the 2023 season could be déjà vu all over again for Team Penske—with a different driver.

Last year, Joey Logano started the season strong, suffered a slump after winning at World Wide Technology Raceway in June and finished with a victory in the championship race at Phoenix.

Logano won three times last year, including a victory at Las Vegas in the Round of 8 and closed with the championship.

This year, Ryan Blaney already has three victories to his credit, including the elimination race in the Round of 8. On Friday, he was third fastest in NASCAR Cup Series final practice—best among the Championship 4 drivers.

So, could a title be in the offing for Blaney?

There’s certainly some parallels, for sure,” acknowledged Jonathan Hassler, Blaney’s crew chief. “Certainly, a lot of differences as well. If you look at the season on a whole, as a company last year we had a lot more speed.

“Maybe not the wins, but we had a lot more speed throughout the year. We certainly had to work tooth and nail and grind it out to find speed here late in the year. Some similarities and some differences as well.”

Admittedly, the seasons would mirror each other to a greater extent if Blaney captures the championship.

Heat for title race on Sunday is a concern for crew chief Rudy Fugle

Unseasonably warm temperatures at the start time for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race could cause problems from crew chiefs and their drivers.

“Yeah, for sure, it’s going to heat the tires up,” said Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Championship 4 driver William Byron. “With as much downforce on the car when the tires get hot, you’re going to lose control and the cars are going to lose handling a whole lot quicker into the run.

“Tires get overheated, say Lap 40, (and with) more downforce, it’s going to be Lap 25. It just speeds up the ill handling and how the cars change over the run.

“It will be pretty big, as warm as it is. It’s probably seven, eight degrees ambient warmer than it normally is this time of year. We’ll definitely be dealing with that.”

— NASCAR Wire Service —