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Respect over rivalry: Hamlin, Harvick aim to carry heavyweight bout into playoffs

The success has been plentiful while the respect has been mutual between Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick throughout the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Harvick leads the way with seven victories, while Hamlin’s six triumphs give both drivers a healthy bonus-points cushion on the other 14 drivers heading into the Round of 16 of the NASCAR Playoffs. Top-seeded Harvick sits at 2,057 points, 10 points ahead of Hamlin, while Hamlin holds an 18-point advantage on third-place Brad Keselowski.

You’d think the rivalry would be fierce. But the exact opposite has been the case – a highly competitive relationship fueled by the desire to conquer the other, mixed with a genuine appreciation for what each is accomplishing as veterans of the sport.

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During the second day of NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Days on Thursday, Hamlin noted he doesn’t anticipate that changing in the postseason for two reasons – age (Hamlin is 39, Harvick 44) and circumstances.

“I don’t think so simply because the championship is won in the final race where I think if this was a 10-week playoff where the champion was crowned after his 10-race performance then yeah, maybe there’s an opportunity there for head games or whatever it might be,” Hamlin said. “Even though I think we’re pretty much old and too old for that. We have a lot of respect between each other, our teams do as well, and we’re going to battle each other at some point in these playoffs.”

Harvick, this year’s regular-season champion and the 2014 Cup Series champ, hasn’t put too much of his energy into focusing on Hamlin, but he has spent more time concentrating on his own No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.

“I think everybody is aware of where everybody is and who is doing good and who is doing bad,” Harvick said. “Yeah, it’s definitely not something that we’ve been calling each other up and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ It’s the distance understanding of what each other is doing and who is doing what and just trying to do the best you can for your team.”

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The postseason kicks off with Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), a track where Hamlin and Harvick split victories in a doubleheader that served as NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 stoppage.

As a heavyweight battle all the way to the Championship 4 brews between the two fighters, there’s so much on the line. Harvick looks to earn his second championship, while Hamlin will try to erase the multiple years of heartbreak after falling short of a first title on multiple occasions, including at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2019.

Hamlin thinks both he and Harvick belong in the finale, but the friendly dynamic could change in those 312 laps in the desert if that ends up being the case.

“I think the right scenario is that we’re at Phoenix (Raceway) together battling it out for the championship,” Hamlin said. “There’s a lot of work that has to get done to get us to that point, but that’s probably the right thing when you think about how a championship should be crowned. Our format is a little different and you have to go out and win that final one. I don’t think that we will race each other any different than what we have all season long. The only time it would ever change would be in that final race.”

Of course, all the success in the first 26 races pushed aside, neither driver is a shoo-in for the grand finale. Even if both drivers are able to get there, Harvick knows it will be a tall task for both of them to put together a perfect race to seal the championship, given the high level of competition among fellow playoff drivers.

“Winning a championship today isn’t how (Dale) Earnhardt and (Richard) Petty did it,” Harvick said. “I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be … I think as you look at that it’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.”