On May 16, Denny Hamlin left Dover International Speedway with a 101-point lead in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings.
Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team were making a solid case as the most consistent in the series. Hamlin put up 10 top-seven finishes through the first 13 races with 571 laps led, and the competition was having a hard time shaking him.
Hamlin was making it look easy and seemed to be building an insurmountable points lead. It was just a matter of time before he crossed the one thing off he hadn’t yet done: win.
Sitting fifth in points after Dover was Kyle Larson. The differential between Hamlin and Larson was 134 points. At the time, no one realized just how much of a turning point that Dover weekend would prove to be.
It wasn’t just that Hendrick Motorsports finished 1-2-3-4 to kick off a six-race winning streak (now seven wins in the last eight races) and began to show its drivers have a leg up on everyone else. Dover was the second consecutive weekend Larson finished second, and he dominated that day as the start of what has been an incredible run where he’s all but eliminated Hamlin’s points lead.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hamlin leads Larson by three points. What once seemed like a long shot is now a reality as the regular-season championship and its 15 bonus points are up for grabs.
Larson might have taken over as the leader after last weekend’s race at Road America. He was inside the top five when teammate Alex Bowman spun him, Bowman saying he had no brakes left. Hamlin finished fifth, and Larson finished 16th.
“Yeah, we hate to give up points, but there’s still a lot of racing left before the playoffs start,” Larson said.
“Obviously, it would be good to beat Denny and get those five extra. Really shooting for it. You can tell he’s really shooting for it, too. He was really aggressive (Sunday). Those five bonus points are important.”
The regular-season champion receives 15 bonus points going into the postseason; 10 bonus points go to the driver who finishes second in the standings.
The sudden appearance of a battle for the regular-season title isn’t because Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart have fallen off the mountain or started mailing it in. The No. 11 team is still good. Hamlin is still the points leader and putting together an impressive season.
But to now stack up Hamlin with Larson, good isn’t good enough. Hamlin’s performance is certainly not where it was at the start of the season when he led laps by the bucketful and every week seemed like an automatic top finish. Hamlin went six consecutive races between Las Vegas and Richmond finishing no worse than fourth.
Through the first 10 races, Hamlin’s average finish was seventh. In the last 10 races, it’s dipped to 9.7 with six top-10 finishes in that stretch. Not exactly panic-worthy.
Larson has been on that coveted hot streak. Over the last 10 races, he’s scored three wins and four second-place finishes for an average finish of 5.5.
A lot can still happen over the next six races, but the one clear thing is that Hamlin needs to win the regular-season title more than Larson does. Hamlin is still winless, and eight of the 10 drivers inside the top 10 have at least one win and have more playoff points than he does. Hamlin has five playoff points to Larson’s 32.
Even if neither driver were to win a race or another stage before the playoffs started and Hamlin won the regular-season title, Larson would still have the bonus points advantage. While only five more points, 15 bonus points sounds better than 10 for Hamlin.
Again, that’s if things stay the same and Larson doesn’t continue to earn bonus points that Hamlin isn’t. Small victories. And it needs to be small victories across the board for Hamlin and his team.
Going into survival mode might be all that Hamlin and company can do right now. Try to be best in class — or as close as they can — and hope it’s good enough to keep Larson at bay over the next six races to claim the regular-season title. After that, well, that part of the season is a different story that we’ll worry about when the time comes.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: NASCAR: Kyle Larson racing Denny Hamlin for regular-season title