Denny Hamlin faces tough field for elusive 1st NASCAR title

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FILE- In this March 8, 2020, file photo, Denny Hamlin walks out during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. Hamlin is 0-for-3 in championship chances, his shot at an elusive first NASCAR crown ending just short of the finish line all three times hes been close. Its his turn again, without rival Kevin Harvick in his way in Sunday's season finale at Phoenix Raceway. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Denny Hamlin is 0-for-3 in championship chances, his shot at an elusive first NASCAR crown ending just short each time.

It's his turn again, without rival Kevin Harvick in his way and his Toyota teammates all eliminated. Hamlin on Sunday will try to close his own career-defining season with the Cup title in NASCAR's season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

Hamlin will be racing with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, Ford teammates from Team Penske, as well as NASCAR’s most popular driver. Chase Elliott last week drove Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports back into the championship race for the first time since 2016.

Elliott's win at Martinsville put him on NASCAR's biggest stage for the first time in his career, but the upset also bounced Harvick out of the finale. Harvick won a Cup Series-high nine races and was the regular-season champion, and Harvick and Hamlin went head-to-head nearly all summer in a rivalry worthy of NASCAR's golden days.

Harvick's elimination theoretically made Hamlin the favorite. He won seven races this season and the title for the first time is being decided at Phoenix, where Hamlin is a two-time winner including last November when he raced his way into the championship four.

The Cup is now his, right?

“I think it’s unlikely anyone considers us an underdog, especially our competition,” said Hamlin.

All four of the finalists are confident they will take the winner-take-all showcase of a grueling season. NASCAR was among the first series to resume racing during the pandemic, returning in May with a rebuilt schedule as NASCAR worked to get venues open across the country.