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Hamlin vs. Larson: The race for the regular-season championship is heating up

Over 140 points sat between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson in the regular-season standings after the Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway on May 9. Just 53 days and seven points-paying races later, his enormous lead has dwindled to a microscopic two-point margin over Larson, who may be the most dialed-in driver on the planet right now.

RELATED: Cup Series standings | Cup Series schedule

Since Darlington, Larson and the entire Hendrick Motorsports camp has been nearly unstoppable. Before Kyle Busch’s superior strategy paid off in race two at Pocono Raceway, Hendrick drivers had won six in a row.

If not for a blown tire on the final lap in the first ‘Tricky Triangle” race, Larson would have won his fourth consecutive outing — five, if you include the non-points event of the NASCAR All-Star Race — and would be leading the series standings. Nonetheless, the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet driver’s historic run has him hot on Hamlin’s heels with just seven races remaining in the regular season.

Kyle Larson closing the points gap to Denny Hamlin
Darlington Raceway  144
Dover International Speedway 142
Circuit of the Americas 110
Charlotte Motor Speedway 76
Sonoma Raceway 47
Nashville Superspeedway 10
Pocono Raceway 1 8
Pocono Raceway 2 2

Winning a handful of races puts you in a good position initially, but as you get deeper into the playoffs, the margin for error is much slimmer. Not only does the regular-season champion get to add another prestigious award to their trophy case, but they also carry an extra 15 playoff points into the postseason. The 15 playoff points you get for winning the regular-season title can be the difference between reaching the Championship 4 and potentially earning the right to hoist the Bill France Cup or watching another team celebrate a title in Victory Lane.

RELATED: Playoff Watch entering Road America

Last season, just eight points kept Kevin Harvick from advancing to the Championship 4 and proved that every single point matters.

Despite being winless so far, Hamlin’s incredible run of form early has afforded him a cushion. But wins are likely the only thing that will keep him out in front for much longer based on Larson and Hendrick’s current pace. The good news for Hamlin and the rest of the No. 11 crew is that he has at least one win at each of the remaining tracks on the schedule, excluding Road America — the lone premier series race was in 1956 — and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which is entirely new to the Cup Series.

RELATED: Images from Road America in 1956

As for Larson, if you discount the tire mishap in the first race a Pocono, he hasn’t finished a race outside of the top two since Kansas Speedway on May 2 (a race he led 132 laps in). In addition to the long string of excellent finishes, he has also crept closer to the hardware by scoring stage points in 28 of the 30 stages and collecting a series-high 12 stage wins — over twice as many as Hamlin sitting in second with five.

Looking ahead to this Sunday’s Jockey Made in America 250 presented by Kwik Trip at Road America (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM), Larson has the slight edge based on momentum and a seventh-place run in an Xfinity Series start at Road America in 2013. He is also one of the few Cup Series drivers to win at a road course during Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.’s recent reign of dominance after his win at Sonoma back in June.

But don’t completely write off Hamlin. He has finished three of the last five road-course races in the top 10 and still holds the series’ best average running position at 6.708 and best average finish at 8.526. The No. 11 wheelman has only had one winless season in his entire 16-year full-time premier series career, so the odds are currently in his favor.

Neither driver can afford to make a big mistake at this point in the season. Both drivers and teams will need to be on their best each week with the regular-season trophy and additional points on the line.

Stats provided by Racing Insights