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NASCAR: Larson favored, Hamlin seeks to end skid at Cup Series Championship

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NASCAR: Larson favored, Hamlin seeks to end skid at Cup Series Championship
Kyle Larson (pictured), Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin will compete for the Cup Series Championship on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. Photo by Zach Catanzareti/Wikimedia Commons

MIAMI, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- NASCAR's Kyle Larson is favored to claim his first Cup Series title Sunday in Phoenix. Veteran Denny Hamlin and past champions Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. sit between Larson's No. 5 Chevrolet and victory lane.

The 2021 Cup Series Championship airs at 3 p.m. EST Sunday on NBC. Thirty-nine cars are in the field, but the Championship 4 -- Larson, Hamlin, Elliott and Truex -- are the only drivers eligible for the title.

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The car with the best finishing position in the 312-lap race claims the honor, but the last seven Cup Series champions won the finale.

"I don't feel like I'm the favorite," Larson told reporters Thursday. "I don't feel like any of us are a favorite. I think as long as I don't believe that, then it's fine."

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More than 42,000 fans expected to attend the event Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. Temperatures are expected to be in the upper 80s, with no rain in the forecast. Qualifying is at 7 p.m. EDT Saturday and airs on CNBC.

"I felt like we learned a lot about ourselves last year and really what we were capable of and how we could focus on the right things and go and ultimately get the job done, and I feel like our group has exemplified that that weekend and since," Elliott, the defending champion, told reporters Thursday.

"I think having gone through that experience once, we can hone in on the things that matter most and make our car go as fast as possible and execute a good race."

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Larson is on one of the best hot streaks in NASCAR history. He won four of nine playoff races, including three of the last four. A win Sunday at Phoenix would make Larson the first drive to earn at least 10 victories in a season since Jimmie Johnson won 10 events in 2007.

Larson, 29, will make his Championship 4 debut. He finished a career-high sixth in the 2019 Cup Series. Larson's 2021 campaign featured 19 finishes in the Top 5 and 25 in the Top 10.

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He also set a record with 2,474 laps led, the most since 2001, when the Cup Series schedule first included 36 races.

Larson's resume does not include a win at Phoenix, while Hamlin's features a Championship 4-best two victories and 32 starts on the one-mile, D-shaped oval.

Hamlin's drought

Hamlin, 40, and Truex, 41, are the most experienced drivers in the Championship 4. Hamlin's resume features more wins, but Truex enjoyed more success at championship level.

Truex, who made his Cup Series debut in 2004, won the 2017 title. He placed second in 2018 and 2019. Hamlin, who debuted in 2005, finished fourth in 2020 and 2019. Third in 2014 and 2006 and second in 2010.

"I certainly know that I am a championship-caliber driver," Hamlin told reporters Thursday. "There's no question in my mind.

"Circumstances have not always worked out in my favor. Performance hasn't always been good enough. But certainly we are as deserving as any."

Hamlin and Truex each drive Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs told reporters Tuesday that Hamlin "has a burning desire" to overcome his title drought.

Larson and Elliott drive Chevrolets for Hendrick Motorsports.

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"It's just cool, awesome for Rick to have a 50% shot of winning another championship," Larson said. "Hopefully Chase or I can get it done and bring another championship home."

Hendrick-owned cars have won a Cup Series-best 13 championships, including eight titles since 2006. Kyle Busch won the last title in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. The Gibbs team owns five overall titles.

Busch also won for Gibbs in 2015. Tony Stewart won titles for Gibbs in 2002 and 2005. Bobby Labonte won the team's first championship in 2000.

Elliott owns the second-best odds to win the Cup Series Championship. Hamlin and Truex Jr. follow as the favorites to win the season finale.

"I think it's my fifth time [competing for a championship]," Truex told reporters Thursday. "I wish we could have won a few more of them, but we've been close.

"I honestly feel lucky to have a chance, to have the opportunity at another championship. I'm excited to be here at Phoenix. We've got a lot of confidence. Winning here in the spring really makes us feel good about this weekend.

How to watch

What: 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship

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When: 3 p.m. EST Sunday

Where: Phoenix Raceway

TV: NBC

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