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Long: New format creates stronger championship field with one spot left to fill

Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Jimmie Johnson are still alive in the quest for a NASCAR Cup Series championship.

FORT WORTH, Texas — They will be familiar foes when they meet in Miami.

Three of the four drivers who will race for the Cup title in less than two weeks competed against each other for the 2015 crown. Kyle Busch won that day, beating Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

Only Gordon, who has since retired, won’t be racing for the championship this year. Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway will determine the fourth title contender.

“When you’re going to race for a championship,’’ Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, told NBC Sports, “you want to race the best, and I feel those two teams (Truex and Busch) are the best right now.’’

With stage and playoff points rewarding drivers for their performance throughout the season, it made it more likely that the top teams would race for a championship. That is evident with the three teams that have advanced.

Truex, Busch and Harvick rank first, second and fourth in laps led and have combined to lead 50 percent of the 10,002 laps run this year. This marks the first time the championship contenders have led more than 37 percent of the laps entering Miami since the elimination-style playoff debuted in 2014.

Truex (seven wins), Busch (five) and Harvick (two) also have combined for 14 victories this season. That’s tied for the most wins among the championship contenders entering Miami since 2014. Last year’s group also had 14 victories heading into the season finale.

This year’s victory total will increase once the fourth driver is determined since that driver will have at least one victory. Chase Elliott, who is winless, is in a must-win situation to advance.

The format doesn’t guarantee all of the best teams will advance to the championship — Kyle Larson’s success during the regular season couldn’t save him from second round that featured finishes of 10th, 13th and 39th.

But the playoffs are like the season, it’s a grind. Truex, who has been the best car most of the season, used all those playoff points from winning races, stages and the regular season title to earn a spot in Miami via points with still one race left in this round.

Busch also has been viewed as one of the strongest cars much of the year and he’ll be back seeking his second title in three years.

Harvick’s win continues a surge by his team in the playoffs. Thirty-three percent of the laps he’s led all season have come in the playoffs.

Even more important is that Harvick’s team beat Truex on a 1.5-mile track. Truex had won six of the nine previous races on such tracks and the championship race is on a 1.5-mile speedway. Harvick’s victory also marked just the second time in eight playoff races that he finished ahead of Truex (the other was Talladega when Harvick was 20th and Truex was 23rd).

“To beat them heads up this weekend is not only a confidence builder for me but really for our whole team in all the things we’re doing,’’ Harvick told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely good timing and hopefully we can carry this forward for two more weeks.’’

Truex, though, isn’t buying that notion.

“Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?’’ Truex said. “All that voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. We’ve had an amazing run on mile‑and‑a‑halves. To win six in a row was ridiculous. To think we came up eight laps short to do seven is pretty good.’’

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