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Regular-season title battle remains tight

When it comes to overall points, the entire NASCAR Cup Series garage has been chasing Denny Hamlin since Week 2 of the 2021 season.

The pilot of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota took over the top standings spot after the second race, becoming the first driver to crack 100 points. Hamlin had 104 points — 12 more than anyone else.

After the 13th race, Hamlin boasted a 100-point lead over his competition. He was easily the first to break 500 points — sitting at 574, which was 101 more than the runner-up.

RELATED: Cup Series standings | A look at the playoff picture

Though he has not won, Hamlin has remained untouched thanks to his series-high 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. He‘s currently at 874 points, above his nearest competitor by 13. Screen Shot 2021 07 21 At 4.16.15 Pm

Kyle Larson is the only wheelman to achieve single-digit reaching distance of Hamlin — down by just two points in Week 19 — and it just so happens the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsport Chevrolet‘s stat line matches Hamlin‘s exactly. Four of Larson‘s top fives and 10s, though, double as wins.

Larson, who is currently ranked second with 861 points, began catching up to Hamlin at the same time he started knocking out the wins. Larson most recently slid into second Week 15 after the first of three victories in a row. He had a 76-point deficit after the first, 47 after the second and 10 after the third. He continued to chip away at that total in the next two races, getting closest with the two-point difference.

But then Hamlin began to separate himself again, slowly but surely. He led by three points, 10 points and now the 13 points.

The points leader obviously doesn‘t win the overall championship. But the points leader at the end of the regular season does win a mini title. The regular-season champion earns a playoff berth and 15 playoff points, which can help a playoff contender survive round-by-round elimination. The latter incentive is why someone already qualified for the postseason should want to fight for the honor.

Larson is one of the 13 drivers locked into the playoffs by virtue of a win. That leaves three spots up for grabs with four races left until the 16-driver field is set.

Hamlin has a 283-point buffer on the cutline. If he wins, he‘s in. If he wins the regular-season title, he‘s in. If neither happens, he‘s in danger if first-time winners accumulate at Watkins Glen International (Aug. 8), Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (Aug. 15), Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 22) and Daytona International Speedway (Aug. 28).

Hamlin’s opportunities to win and score points are running out, and Larson is looming.