Playoffs begin with 14 drivers chasing Harvick and Hamlin

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Kevin Harvick (4) celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Dover International Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/Jason Minto)

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are expected to race head-to-head for the NASCAR Cup title when the 10-week playoff series begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

The duo heads to the South Carolina track with a combined 13 regular-season wins between them — they each won a race at Darlington in May when racing resumed during the coronavirus pandemic — and they've accumulated enough playoff points to practically coast into the championship-deciding finale. That theoretically leaves the 14 other drivers racing for just two spots in the winner-take-all race.

“I met with my team and I told them at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy. Why not us?” said Brad Keselowski. “We can do it just as well as anybody and I’m ready for that challenge.”

The field consists of six former champions including Kyle Busch, the current holder of the Bill France Cup. Busch is a two-time Cup champion but has had a terrible 2020 by his standards and is still seeking his first win of the season.

“Certainly we’re not a title front-runner, we’re not a favorite,” Busch said. “We are on the bottom of the spectrum and we’re on the outside looking in.”

At stake is a winning streak of at least one victory a year since his 2005 rookie season, a source of pride for Busch and one his Joe Gibbs Racing team doesn't want to end.

“It’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going,” Busch said. "This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. It’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next? What’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience?

“Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”