Ross Chastain made a historic move to sneak into the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4. Chase Elliott, the sport's most popular driver, had a season-high five victories in 2022. Christopher Bell won twice with his back against the wall to make the field.
That left Joey Logano the forgotten man in this championship race.
Team Penske's veteran leader produced a dominant run Sunday at Phoenix Raceway that left no doubt who should be champion. Logano led a race-high 188 laps and remained ahead of all other title contenders for virtually the entire event.
His second Cup title became a foregone conclusion, matching a confidence that never wavered from the second he showed up at Media Day festivities on Thursday.
"This team does amazing under the pressure," Logano said after earning the pole earlier in the weekend. "That's why we thrive in Playoffs and Championship 4 type moments. I love it. It makes me better."
Logano's rise came in the first year without wingman Brad Keselowski at Penske. At 32 years old, the former wide-eyed kid NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin nicknamed "Sliced Bread" was tasked to live up to that nickname leading one of the sport's legendary organizations.
"Really put his arms around the team," said owner Roger Penske. "And I think we're a lot more transparent as a group. They certainly worked together coming here this weekend."
That teamwork was apparent down the stretch with Logano's teammate Ryan Blaney matching him on speed, sitting second as a safety valve-slash-blocker. In the end, Chastain was too far back in third to pull a second straight rim-riding move, finishing almost 1.3 seconds behind.
"Mr. Penske's group had us covered," Chastain admitted. "We didn't have the balance in our car and the grip in our car all day to be that way."
So Logano cruised as other rivals fell off. Elliott after contact with Chastain (more on that later) and Christopher Bell after his crewman's finger got hung up inside a tire during a pit stop. The No. 22 Ford was the only title contender who remained mistake free all afternoon; the average finish of 14th among the quartet was the worst for a Championship 4 event since 2016.
It came on a somber day for NASCAR nation, learning the morning of this race Joe Gibbs Racing Vice Chairman and COO Coy Gibbs had died in his sleep. He was just 49, mere hours removed from celebrating son Ty winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
"For the whole sport, it's a sad day," Logano said, a former JGR driver himself before leaving for Penske in 2013. "For me, it's a bittersweet type of thing because here we are winning a championship, and here we are one of the people that's a leader in our sport and someone I've known for a while is gone, and I don't really know how to explain that and how hard that is."
It produced an odd juxtaposition, JGR's Kyle Busch getting emotional post-race along with Christopher Bell's crew chief Adam Stevens as Logano was doing donuts on the tri-oval. But as the pain of tragedy fades, the triumph of Logano's accomplishment will be appreciated as the first active two-time champion driving a Ford since David Pearson in 1968-69.
"I feel like for sure when these playoffs started this season, he was on his A game," said Logano's crew chief Paul Wolfe. "He was focused and determined that we were going to win this championship."
It was the perfect bookend to a year Logano started with a win in Los Angeles at the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum. A driver who was once a shy young kid struggling to live up to expectations has now developed a healthy belief in himself to match a Hall of Fame resume.
"I believe confident people win," Logano said. "If you don't believe in yourself, who else is ever going to believe in you? How are you ever going to win?"
Green: Ross Chastain. In the end, Trackhouse Racing Team's budding star came up short in a whirlwind run to the Championship 4. But both driver and team can stand proud after two wins and a season-high 21 top-10 finishes. "This scenario," Chastain explained, "If I lost by a little bit, that I would be really upset, and I'm not. Like I'm so proud and so happy to give our first shot at these playoffs and at racing in the Cup Series… we just ran second."
Yellow: Ryan Blaney. A second-place run with 109 laps led is a nice way for Blaney to end the year. But he'll wonder what might have been, second in points without a postseason reset where just one victory would have gotten him in the Championship 4 himself. Blaney's only win of 2022? The non-points NASCAR All-Star Race. (At least he won a cool $1 million for it.)
Red: Driver finales. Kyle Busch, finishing seventh, was the only one who had a sniff of success in their final start with a Cup organization. It was still jarring to recognize the No. 18 will be driven by someone else in 2023.
Further back, Tyler Reddick was 23rd running the No. 8 of Richard Childress Racing the Kyle Busch will take over next year. Ty Dillon was 26th in the No. 42 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet, where he'll be replaced by Noah Gragson in 2023, and retiring crew chief Greg Ives could do no better than 34th with Alex Bowman and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Honorable Mention: Daniel Hemric. Called on at the last minute so Ty Gibbs could grieve his father's death, Hemric finished a respectable 17th with 23XI Racing's No. 23 Toyota. A lead-lap finish with no practice and a seat fitting the morning of the race is just about all you can ask for.
Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain were battling for position on a restart, desperate to track down Logano, when the duo made contact on lap 201. Elliott wound up spinning to the inside of the track, suffering damage to his No. 9 Chevrolet while Chastain carried on unscathed.
Elliott was irritated on the radio, repeatedly asking his team, "Did I do anything wrong?" before limping around the rest of the race. Finishing 28th, two laps down, he avoided the subject during post-race questioning.
"I'm not sure," he said when asked what happened. "Looking forward to the offseason, and really proud of our team for the fight that we put in today. I feel like we just kind of peaked right there before we crashed."
Chastain, for his part, refused to take the blame on this one after a season spent rubbing fenders and causing frustration for fellow competitors.
"I felt like I got position on him," Chastain said. "To the left side, the dogleg, and he turned left."