Royal Oak Tribune

Path to title clear with Harvick out of the way

- By Jenna Fryer

AVONDALE, ARIZ.» Kevin Harvick was a sure bet to make the NASCAR finale and likely close out one of the most dominant seasons of the decade.

Instead, he’s been eliminated and the hyped head-tohead matchup between Harvick and Denny Hamlin has been scrapped. For better or worse, NASCAR’s title- deciding format knocked the strongest team this season from contention for Sunday’s winner-take-all final four at Phoenix Raceway.

“I’m not going to view if we win it any different whether he was in or out,” Hamlin said Thursday.

No one denies Harvick deserved a chance at the title. He won a series-high nine times, had a whopping 20 top-five finishes and led nearly every statistica­l category this year. It was a back-and-forth between Harvick and Hamlin that most assumed would go down to the finale.

But Harvick had a poor third round of the playoffs and his season collapsed. He’s out of the way and Hamlin will race Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Joey

Logano for the Cup Series championsh­ip.

It’s a much cleaner path to the title since Harvick is a nine-time winner at Phoenix, which is hosting NASCAR’s championsh­ip weekend for the first time. Out of the mix for the title, he might still be in contention for the race win.

“They’ve got a chip on the shoulder and if they’ve got a fast car, they are going to give the guys in the championsh­ip a whole lot of trouble,” said NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I think Harvick might hustle up in there and just not care.”

Hamlin, a seven-race winner this season, believes the champion has to win Sunday. But he also knows Harvick has nothing to lose.

“I still think I’m going to have to race him,” Hamlin said. “I would think they probably come loaded and ready to go out and show that they should be champions, right? I don’t expect him to waffle around and just kind of let all four of us go race for it.”

 ?? RICHARD W. RODRIGUEZ —
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Kevin Harvick (4), Brad Keselowski (2) and Alex Bowman (88) cross the starting line to begin a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 25.
RICHARD W. RODRIGUEZ — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Kevin Harvick (4), Brad Keselowski (2) and Alex Bowman (88) cross the starting line to begin a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 25.

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