By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
The difference a summer stretch can make.
In the battle for the 2021 regular-season championship — a title given to the point leader at the end of the regular season’s 26th and final race — it couldn’t be any closer with just three races left to run.
For Denny Hamlin, his once massive point lead (98 points following Circuit of the Americas on May 23) has now been completely vanished to dead tie with Kyle Larson following Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen.
Though such a loss highlights the struggles of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in recent months — or better yet, the speed of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports camp — the battle is keeping things fresh and competitive during a usually bleak part of the season.
“I honestly like this because it’s making me keep my form through the whole year,” Hamlin said of the inner-title battle with Larson. “It’s pushing me to treat every race like it’s a playoff race.”
Though the win statistic is well in Larson’s favor (his five wins to Hamlin’s none), the two have swamped finishes all season. In fact, Hamlin has finished ahead of Larson in 11 of 23 races despite failing to win.
“We keep going back and forth each race on who’s better,” he said. “I feel we’re really good. I thought we were significantly better than them at Loudon, we had issues. He’s got the wins so he’s racking up the bonus points.
“For me, I like the competitiveness of it. Had this been a 100-point lead like earlier in the season… I don’t know, maybe you’re just relaxing. This is pushing us to go all-out every race.”
With three races to run at the Indianapolis Road Course, Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway, Hamlin, after finishing fifth Sunday at Watkins Glen, believes it will come down to the final lap at Daytona to decide who’s lifting the regular-season title.
“It’s going to be a battle all the way to the end,” he 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 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.”