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Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin, is a NASCAR rivalry building?

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — What is quickly becoming the best rivalry in NASCAR evidently has at least one willing participant.

After Kyle Larson edged Chris Buescher at the line in the closest finish in history Sunday night at Kansas Speedway, the 2021 Cup Series champion confessed that he would have been OK finishing second, because their door-banging, nose-to-nose finish — the final margin was a mere hundredth of a second — was just so “frickin’ awesome.”

If it was Denny Hamlin, rather than Buescher, who beat the No. 5 car in a photo finish? Well …

“I’d have been pissed off,” Larson admitted, “because I’ve finished second to him so many times, and I would hate to probably hear, ‘Oh, the Larson-Hamlin finish,’ or, ‘Hamlin beat him again.’ That would suck.”

Six times Larson and Hamlin have finished 1-2 in a race, including the previous week at Dover and last year at Kansas, when Hamlin bumped Larson into the wall on the final lap to win. In fact, all six times, Hamlin has been the victor.

It almost came down to them again Sunday, too. They ran near the front all race, and it was Hamlin who had the lead after Kyle Busch brought out a late caution and the field cycled through pit stops. But on the restart, Larson ducked low and caught Hamlin in the middle with Buescher on the outside, and the No. 11 from Joe Gibbs Racing dropped backward like a rock.

“I needed to get a push from the 5,” Hamlin said, “but I knew he wasn’t going to stay in line. He was going to go for the win.”

Hamlin wound up finishing fifth, saying afterward: “Had a great view of the finish.”

Through the first dozen races of the Cup Series season, Larson and Hamlin have emerged as the guys to beat.

Larson has led a series-best 633 laps and Hamlin is second at 606. Larson leads in stage wins with six while Hamlin is second with three. Hamlin is tied for the series lead with three trips to victory lane while Larson now has two.

Pick the statistic — top-fives, where Larson has a series-leading six and Hamlin has four — and the story keeps playing out.

“It’s important for sure to put together good runs every weekend, and I think our team has done a phenomenal job of that,” Larson said. “We’ve racked up a ton of stage points compared to the field, which has been huge. Stage wins, as well, which obviously helps. Then we’ve been finishing good, too. We’ve either been top-five every race or something has happened where we finished just around 20th. But those days last year I would have crashed or something, doing something stupid.”

As for their developing rivalry, Larson and Hamlin have a lot to live up to in the pantheon of remarkable ones in NASCAR.

In the 1970s, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison feuded so fiercely and so often that after a crash during the 1979 Daytona 500, the two jumped from their cars and began throwing haymakers. Richard Petty and David Pearson at least kept their rivalry on the track, though it was no less heated, and Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch often clashed throughout the 2000s.

The last great rivalry, though, might have been Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, going fender-to-fender for wins seemingly every week. And that one ended in tragedy nearly 25 years ago, when Earnhardt was killed in a crash during the Daytona 500.

Both had passionate fans, just like Larson and Hamlin do. Both were part of powerful teams, just like Hamlin and Larson are.

In fact, Larson has helped Hendrick Motorsports pile up six wins through the first 12 races, with William Byron winning three times and Chase Elliott once. Hamlin’s three wins and another by Christopher Bell give Joe Gibbs Racing four on the year.

All the rest of the Cup Series teams combined have just two.

“Really proud of what we’re doing as a company, and what we’re doing together, and the consistency I think that we have across our four cars,” Hendrick Motorsports president Jeff Andrews said. “We know we have to work hard and we’ve got to keep this going. We’re still kind of in the early part of the season, so to speak. But certainly proud of where we’re at.”

Lately, that’s been with Larson somewhere close to the front of the field.

Usually, Hamlin is right there with him.

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