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Head-to-head: Hamlin vs. Larson for Cup Series’ regular-season champ

After 23 NASCAR Cup Series races, there’s not a clear-cut front-runner for the 2021 Regular-Season Championship. There’s actually two. Kyle Larson won last Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International, forging a tie with Denny Hamlin atop the points standings.

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Hamlin has ridden remarkable consistency to stay atop the standings since Week 2 of the Cup Series season, but Larson has rallied back on the strength of a series-best five wins. Hamlin is still searching for his first win of 2021.

Three races remain in the regular season — Sunday’s series debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Aug. 22 at Michigan International Speedway and Aug. 28 at Daytona International Speedway. With time winding down and a 15-point playoff bonus going to the regular-season champ, NASCAR.com’s Zack Albert and Sean Montgomery debate which driver has the best shot to hold the points lead once the playoffs arrive.

ALBERT: Tough to go against the hot hand, so here’s a vote for Kyle Larson to keep his upward trend and come out on top of the regular-season heap. In the last 12 races, Larson has finished first or second eight times — a big reason why he has chopped Hamlin’s regular-season lead from a high-water mark of 144 points to nothing during that same stretch.

Variables remain among the three regular-season races, but Larson holds a favorable forecast for at least two of them. The Cup Series hasn’t competed on Indy’s grand-prix layout, but Larson has won two of the series’ last three road-course events, flexing the strength of Hendrick Motorsports’ road-racing program. Larson is also a three-time winner at Michigan. His Daytona stats stack up less favorably as Larson is still seeking his first win on a superspeedway, a strong suit for Hamlin’s No. 11 team. Playoff fortunes can turn quickly in the regular-season finale at Daytona, but if Larson pours it on in the next two races, it may be buffer enough.

The 2021 season has marked a breakout for Larson and his No. 5 group, but the seemingly insurmountable points cushion — and sense of invincibility — Hamlin amassed in the regular season’s first half has started to fizzle. Enter Larson, who may add another win to his total to nail down a regular-season coronation.

MONTGOMERY: Denny Hamlin is still the guy. The veteran has a mind-boggling goose egg in the win column this season and is still contending for the trophy. As tight as they’ve competed, it’s all about consistency — the buzzword for Hamlin’s 2021 title run.

Conceding that Larson moves oddsmakers at Indy and may be the outright favorite at Michigan, it’s worth noting his toughest competition this season has been within his own organization. Even after a mistake-induced stumble at Watkins Glen, Chase Elliott should still be the overall favorite to win at the Brickyard. But don’t forget, Hamlin is no slouch on road circuits either, tallying a 7.0 average finish at the first five left-and-right-turn tracks this season. Expect the two regular-season title contenders to remain relatively close on points.

Heading to Michigan, Hamlin has three consecutive top six finishes and four top 10s in his last five races at the track. Larson has dominated many of the intermediates this season and won at Michigan in the past, but he hasn’t turned laps there in more than two years. And the D-shaped two-mile oval often runs more like a superspeedway, settling right into Hamlin’s wheelhouse.

That sets up the “wild card” finale, and nobody does Daytona quite like Hamlin. Seemingly immune to “The Big One,” Hamlin has only crashed out of a Daytona race three times in 31 starts. Larson has five DNFs in 14 races. Crashing out would be catastrophic for the title battle, and odds are it won’t be Hamlin. If he needs a win to clinch, he has done that as well — winning two of the last five at The World Center of Racing.