It took five wins by Kyle Larson to catch the foremost consistent driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series this season, but he finally did it. Now, it is a sprint to end first within the driver points standings with three races left within the regular season. Larson and Denny Hamlin are tied with 917 points.
“I think for him and that i both, we’ve been mentally there for a short time now,” Larson said after his series-leading fifth win on Sunday at Watkins Glen. “And yes, I feel come playoff time, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing and, hopefully, we’ll find ourselves within the final four.” Hamlin gained the points lead after the second race of the season at the Daytona road course and his consistency allowed him to increase it before Larson got hot within the spring and commenced pecking away.
After 23 races, both drivers have 16 top 10s and 12 top 5s, and Larson also features a series-best 12 stage wins to 5 for Hamlin. The 29-year-old Larson had a six-race stretch starting at Darlington in early May that included three wins and three runner-up finishes within the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, which has won 11 races this season. He closed the gap to 2 points after the second race at Pocono in late June.
Hamlin then rallied to create his lead back to 13 points heading to Watkins Glen, and Larson’s victory there finally erased all of it. Last year Hamlin won seven races in his No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. This year, he’s yet to taste victory. “I desire we’re good. We’re specialized,” Hamlin said. “We just keep going back and forth each race on quite who’s better. But he’s obviously got the wins and racking up the bonus points.”
The next stop on the schedule is Sunday on the road course at Indianapolis, then Michigan, and therefore the Daytona oval to finish the regular season. Hamlin, a solid road racer, features a win at Watkins Glen and one runner-up finish at Sonoma six years ago that was nearly a victory until Tony Stewart bumped him into the wall on the last turn of the race.
Larson also won at Sonoma in June, and in both of his road course wins he held off teammate Chase Elliott, who has seven road wins, third all-time. “I’ve been good at road courses, but I just didn’t know,” Larson said. “I was always sort of a seventh- to a tenth-place guy when it came to the race. But now I feel that I’m during a great racer (and) I’m ready to run that aggressive pace the entire time, and my car stays with me.” Indy is going to be a mystery for many. NASCAR switched from the famed 2.5-mile oval to a 14-turn, 2.439-mile layout that’s flat as a pancake. The Xfinity Series first raced there last year, but this may be the Cup debut.
“I haven’t made one lap there on a simulator or anything, and I’m not getting to get the prospect to try to do that in the week,” Larson said. “I honestly don’t even have the corners memorized yet. There’s nothing that I can fancy there, but once I buy laps and in practice maybe there are some corners which will be similar, but we’ll just need to wait and see.”
Still, Larson is reveling within the moment. “It’s fun racing him (Hamlin), and that I anticipate to subsequent few weeks and really even into the playoffs,” Larson said. “I’m glad there’s a fun little regular-season point battle. I desire in years past it’s quite been a blowout come to the last race of the points. To be tied with three races left is pretty cool.”