Lodi News-Sentinel - - Sports - By Jenna Fryer

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Har­vick wasted zero time in lev­el­ing the first vol­ley in NASCAR’s cham­pi­onship race.

In Har­vick’s opin­ion, he’s play­ing with house money when he races Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Ke­selowski next Sun­day at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way for the ti­tle. It’s Truex, Har­vick be­lieves, who faces all the pres­sure.

“Martin has won a lot of races this year,” Har­vick said. “Those guys have dom­i­nated the year, and I feel like if they don’t win at this point, they would prob­a­bly feel like they’ve had a let­down.

“It’s a lot of fun com­ing from be­hind and play­ing catch up and kind of play­ing that un­der­dog role is much easier than be­ing ex­pected to go down there and win. We ex­pect to win.”

When told that Har­vick has picked Truex as the fa­vorite, Truex cut off the ques­tion be­fore wait­ing to hear what Har­vick even said.

“That sounds like Har­vick,” joked Truex.

But Truex won’t be rat­tled. He’s won seven races this year, been the most dom­i­nant driver all sea­son and has three wins in these play­offs. So if Har­vick is try­ing to lean on Truex, he’s got the wrong guy.

“It doesn’t work on me,” Truex said. “If I’m the fa­vorite, per­fect, I like that. I think it’s a bet­ter po­si­tion to be in. I was the un­der­dog be­fore and I fin­ished fourth, so yeah, bring it on.”

The field was fi­nal­ized Sun­day when Ke­selowski earned the fi­nal spot in the cham­pi­onship on points. He fin­ished 16th at Phoenix Race­way and had to sweat it out be­cause he was never in con­tention for the vic­tory. Had one of four other driv­ers won the race, Ke­selowski would have been out.

And, had Chase El­liott and Denny Ham­lin not been feud­ing, Ham­lin might have claimed the fi­nal spot over Ke­selowski on points.

“Just feel glad to make it through, you know, and have a shot next week,” Ke­selowski said. “You never know how these things are go­ing to play out. Cer­tainly would be a stretch by any means by how we ran today to say we’re the fa­vorite, but we are glad to be there, and you never know how those races are go­ing to shake out.”

Matt Kenseth passed El­liott with 10 laps re­main­ing to win Phoenix and deny El­liott the fi­nal berth in next week’s cham­pi­onship race. Had El­liott hung on for the win, he would have qual­i­fied for the cham­pi­onship fi­nale.

El­liott fin­ished sec­ond for the sev­enth time in his ca­reer.

The Kenseth win sal­vaged the day for Gibbs, which had a chance to get Ham­lin into the cham­pi­onship.

Ham­lin and El­liott were rac­ing for po­si­tion and El­liott gave Ham­lin sev­eral taps as he tried to get past him for po­si­tion, and when he fi­nally was able to pull along­side Ham­lin, the two cars made con­tact. Ham­lin grazed the wall and im­me­di­ately be­gan los­ing po­si­tions on the track.

Just a few laps later, his tire blew, Ham­lin hit the wall and his race was over. El­liott ad­mit­ted he raced Ham­lin ag­gres­sively, same as Ham­lin did when he wrecked El­liott from the lead at Martinsville.

“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” El­liott said. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it. That’s about all I have to say.”

Ham­lin was rac­ing to win, but could have beaten Ke­selowski into the fi­nale on points had he not wrecked. He has main­tained that he didn’t mean to wreck El­liott at Martinsville, and the pay­back Sun­day was re­demp­tion.

“It just proves to the peo­ple who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the ex­act same thing un­der the same cir­cum­stances,” Ham­lin said. “I got into him and he chose to re­tal­i­ate.”

Jim­mie John­son also wrecked early in the race , end­ing his bid to make the cham­pi­onship. The elim­i­na­tion of the seven-time cham­pion means NASCAR will not have a re­peat win­ner.

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