The battle for the regular-season championship between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson is coming down to the wire.
Following Larson’s fifth win of the season Sunday afternoon on the road course at Watkins Glen, he moved into a tie with Hamlin for the overall points lead. Hamlin has led the standings since the second race of the season and has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series despite not having won a race.
Hamlin was fifth in the Go Bowling at The Glen, his fourth top-10 finish in five road course races this season. He and Larson lead the series with 15 top-10 finishes.
“It’s going to be a battle all the way to the end, I think,” Hamlin said. “Really proud of our effort today. We passed, had to be the most cars. We were really, really fast all day. Proud of this whole FedEx Express team. We’ve come a long way on the road courses.
“I thought we had equal pace with the 5 (Larson), especially on the long run. Obviously, we made an extra stop there for whatever reason. It’s an encouraging day when we can be as competitive as what we were.”
Three races remain in the regular season. The driver who wins the regular-season championship will be awarded 15 playoff points, which likely sounds better than 10 points for being second in the standings for Hamlin.
While Larson and Hendrick Motorsports might be considered the championship favorite with his bucket of wins and playoff points, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing have put in a solid season. The two are primed to race each other hard down this final stretch.
Larson is the new series leader – taking the spot from Hamlin after Watkins Glen – with 265 stage points. Hamlin has 261. But Larson is clearly ahead of Hamlin and the rest of the competition regarding race wins (five to Hamlin’s zero) and stage wins (12 to Hamlin’s five).
Larson also expects the points to be decided after the last lap in the finale at Daytona.
“(Hamlin) is so good at Daytona, too, so it would be nice to get a couple good weeks and get that point lead because I know he’s going to go there, and anything can happen at Daytona,” said Larson. “But I know he’s going to go there, and he’s going to get stage points, and he’s going to challenge for the win. I know he’s looking at me as the same.
“If he could go into Daytona being even or ahead, he’s going to feel like he’s got the advantage. I’d like to have a good couple weeks before we get there and give us a little bit of wiggle room.”
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 8, 2021
The regular-season championship has not been a source of entertainment in recent seasons. Kevin Harvick clinched it midway through the second-to-last race of the regular season last year. Kyle Busch claimed the honor in both 2018 and ’19, and in ’18, did so midway through the final race of the regular season.
“I want everybody to race me hard,” Larson said of battling Hamlin. “He ran me really hard at Road America and put me in a couple bad spots to where I almost ended up in the grass, or if I didn’t lift, I was going to send him spinning. So, then I knew points was on his mind, and trying to hold me back is definitely on his mind.
“Yeah, it’s fun racing him, and I look forward to the next few weeks and really even into the playoffs. There’s still a lot of racing left, and yeah, it’s going to be fun. I’m glad there’s a fun little regular-season point battle, and I feel like, in years past, it’s kind of been a blowout come the last race of the points. But yeah, to be tied with three races left is pretty cool.”