WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Denny Hamlin was good on Sunday at Watkins Glen International. But Kyle Larson was better, picking up his fifth NASCAR Cup Series checkered flag of the season.
In the process, Larson made up 13 points on Hamlin, and is now tied for the points lead with three races remaining in the regular season.
Hamlin was proud of his fifth-place effort at Watkins Glen, believing he had equal speed to the No. 5 car. However, Larson has officially overcome a 146-point deficit in the last 13 races (dating back to Talladega Superspeedway), earning a total of 37 playoff points in the first 23 races of the 2021 season.
“It’s going to be a battle all the way to the end,” Hamlin said following Watkins Glen. “It‘s a mix of racetracks; we‘ve got a little taste of everything. I would suspect it‘s going to take until the last lap at Daytona to figure this thing out.”
The three races remaining in the regular season will be contested at the inaugural Cup race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
Both drivers think the battle is pretty evenly matched, as they’ve been trading off points each week. Now, it’s a reset of sorts.
“I‘m glad there‘s a fun, little regular season points battle,” Larson said after his win at Watkins Glen. “I feel like in years past, it‘s been a blowout come the last race [in the regular season]. To be tied with three races left is pretty cool.”
Statistically, Larson should have the advantage next week at Indianapolis, given Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the five road course races this season. At Michigan, it’s hard to call, as both have multiple wins at the fast racetrack. At Daytona, Hamlin has the clear advantage, having won three of the last six Daytona 500s.
Larson knows that, too.
“They‘re so good at Daytona, so it would be nice to get a couple good weeks and get that points lead because anything can happen at Daytona,” Larson added. “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 we go into Daytona even or ahead, he‘s going to feel like he has the advantage. I would like to have a good couple of weeks before we get there and give us a little bit of wiggle room.”
Hamlin and Larson are both taking this battle as a preview of the postseason. Each driver has to be at the top of their game to edge ahead of the other and gain five more bonus points (second place in the regular season gets 10 playoff points).
Even though Hamlin has given up a monstrous points lead, he stated he enjoys being in the position he’s in. It’s making the No. 11 team stronger and more prepared for the battle to come in the playoffs, which begins in four weeks at Darlington Raceway.
“I like this because it‘s making me keep my form through the whole year,” Hamlin stated. “It‘s really pushing me to treat every race like it‘s a playoff race. Had this been a 100-point lead like it was earlier in the season, maybe you‘re just relaxing a little bit and then all of a sudden have to turn it on right when the playoffs come on. This is pushing us to go all out every race.”
Larson echoed Hamlin’s thoughts, believing the No. 5 team is being pushed. He believes that’s a good thing.
Larson said, “I think for him and I both, we‘ve been mentally there for a while now. I think come playoff times, we‘ll keep doing what we‘ve been doing and hopefully we‘ll find ourselves in the final four.”
And just because Hamlin and Larson are friends away from the track doesn’t mean the two drivers will give each other room on the racetrack over the final three weeks. Larson has already watched Hamlin race him hard, pointing at Road America in July.
“He ran me really hard at Road America and put me in a couple bad spots where I almost ended up in the grass, or if I didn‘t lift I would have sent him spinning,” Larson said. “I knew points [were] on his mind and trying to hold me back was on his mind.
“It‘s fun racing him and I look forward to the next few weeks and really even into the playoffs.”
Hamlin vowed to continue racing Larson hard, too.
“I race him as hard as I possibly can,” he said. “He‘s racing me hard, I‘m racing him hard. It‘s not really as much about the extra bonus points as much as it‘s just, we‘ve got three to go, we‘re tied, who is going to come out on top.”
Following the Indianapolis road course race, that picture might be more clear. For now, it’s fun to watch.