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Thursday November 23rd, 2017 11:57AM

Truex goes into championship race as favorite to win title

By Jenna Fryer-AP Auto Racing Writer
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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — 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 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.

Now, three former series champions and Truex, who has raced for the title in this format before, will compete for the title. The field is made up of two Toyota drivers and two Ford drivers, as Chevrolet was knocked out of title contention when Elliott and Larson failed to advance.

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