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Matt Kenseth celebrates his win in Victory Lane after a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

NASCAR – Takeaways from Phoenix: Harvick plays underdog, Truex embraces being top dog

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   AVONDALE, Ariz. — Four takeaways from Phoenix Raceway and Sunday’s Can-Am 500 as NASCAR prepares to decide its three national-series championships this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida:

TALKING THE TALK – The checkered flag had barely stopping flying over Matt Kenseth’s winning car Sunday when the trash talk for next weekend started.

Kevin Harvick, who considers himself something of a master at head games, began by declaring himself essentially an underdog in the race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title.

“The pressure is really on the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and the 18 (Kyle Busch),” 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.”

Truex wasn’t buying it.

“If I’m the favorite, perfect, I like that,” he said. “I think it’s a better position to be in. … So, yeah, bring it on.”

If Harvick’s plan is to bounce around in the heads of Truex, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, hard racers all, he’s likely to find that avenue not very productive.

ALL QUIET ON THE CHEVY FRONT – Chevrolet has won 10 of the last 12 Cup driver championships, but this year’s will be decided between Toyota (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) and Ford (Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick).

Chevrolet didn’t have a horrible year – it won 10 races and put seven drivers into the 16-driver playoff field, but its spotlighted performers – Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson – failed to take General Motors to the finals.

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HAMLIN BUMPED OUT – In 11 full-time seasons in Cup racing, Denny Hamlin has scored nine top-10 finishes in the final point standings – three in the top three. The 2017 season will mark another year in which he failed to win his first title.

Those hopes ended late in Sunday’s race when Chase Elliott bumped Hamlin into the outside wall, eventually forcing Hamlin to park. The encounter was viewed as payback for Hamlin wrecking Elliott two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway.

“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things, and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” Hamlin said of the meeting with Elliott. “So, I mean, you know, it’s just part of racing. I got into him, and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is.”

TRUEX TOTALS – With seven race wins and a thoroughly consistent season, Martin Truex Jr. will roll into Homestead as the championship favorite, despite the fact that he’s the only driver in the Final Four without a title.

Truex has been a force in the playoffs, winning three times and posting an average finish of 2.37 in eight of the nine races (not including Talladega Superspeedway, where he wrecked).

The downside for Truex and his team is that team owner Barney Visser won’t be at Homestead to experience the finale because of recent heart surgery. Truex said Visser is improving rapidly but won’t be ready to travel by this weekend.

“For a long time he thought he was bad luck because we only won when he was not here,” Truex said. “So if we do win it next weekend and he’s not there, he may never show up again.

“In all honesty, we definitely wish he was there, but he’ll be there in spirit. He’s a huge part of this team, and everybody has got him on their mind as the weekend goes on as we’re doing our jobs, and we know we wouldn’t be here without him. He means a ton to us, and we’re going to try to go get this one for him.”

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