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Debate: Who will win first, Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick?

One of the biggest surprises of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season so far is that neither Kevin Harvick nor Denny Hamlin has won any of the 22 races. These two combined for 16 wins in 2021, with Harvick tallying a series-high nine and Hamlin contributing the other seven for the second-best mark. Eleven of those total victories were accomplished by this point last year, too.

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OK then, what has been the problem with the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drivers? There have been 13 different winners this season, so it’s not for a lack of variety.

NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Terrin Waack debate whether Harvick or Hamlin will take home a trophy first. Four races are left in the regular season, and then there are another 10 in the playoffs. Plenty of opportunities remain.

DeCOLA: It’s truly remarkable that both of these drivers remain winless after what we witnessed last year, especially considering neither of them is having a bad season and one of them has been leading the point standings since February. Alas, here we are — Gooseegg City. That said, I do think both of them will win before the season is up. The regular season, that is.

Since we just mentioned February, let’s go back there. Do you recall what the big, on-track story line was? Oh yeah — Hamlin was vying for his third straight Daytona 500 crown. While it didn’t come, he notched his fourth top five — he finished fifth — in the last five races at the notoriously mercurial Daytona. Few out there will argue against Hamlin being the undisputed superspeedway ace at the moment, and the notion of him going to Daytona winless with an unsecured playoff spot makes it feel like a sure thing he’ll be the one walking out of there holding the trophy.

And now for the bait-and-switch …

Harvick is going to win first.

One week before Daytona? Michigan. Winner of four of the last five Michigan races? Harvick.

It’s a bit concerning that No. 4 crew chief Rodney Childers said two weeks ago the team was struggling to find more horsepower and downforce, admitting the performance of the car “kind of is what it is at this point,” but there are some encouraging signs.

SHR is the most recent Cup team to win, with Aric Almirola’s New Hampshire victory highlighting five Fords in the top six after a season of domination from Chevrolet and Toyota. It gives the Blue Ovals the upper hand as the sport entered a multi-week break amidst a recent uptick in performance overall. Given that Harvick has perhaps been Ford’s most consistent — albeit, you know, winless — driver this year, logic stands to reason that if the manufacturer has found something and closed the gap on the others, the 2014 champ would be the primary benefactor.

And even if it hasn’t, Harvick and Childers clearly have Michigan figured out and it’s their race to lose.

WAACKTruth be told, I really just want to say “I told you so!” at the end of the season.

In NASCAR.com’s bold 2021 preseason predictions, I said: “You know how Kyle Busch struggled after his 2019 championship run? A similar story line is going to unfold for Kevin Harvick after his nine-win 2020 season.”

And that is exactly what is happening.

Through 22 races, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has yet to park his No. 4 Ford in Victory Lane. Harvick’s best finish yet — second — came at Kansas Speedway back in May, and he has had just two top-five runs since then (11 races).

Harvick is in danger of not making the NASCAR Playoffs, sitting in 15th and 82 points above the cutline, with four races left in the regular season. Hamlin is 14th with a 283-point buffer, for comparison. The two drivers are tied for most top-10 showings (15) in the series, but the difference is 11 of those double as top fives for Hamlin, while only six do for Harvick.

Neither has won, but Hamlin is performing better than Harvick, leading me to believe he will punch his winning ticket first.