Five drivers left to contend for final transfer spot to championship round

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Despite his best finish in the playoffs Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin fell further behind for the final spot in the championship round.

“With a third-place finish it’s amazing we lost that many points,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports.

Hamlin entered the race eight points out of the final transfer spot. After 500 miles, he trails Brad Keselowski by 19 points for the chance to race for a title in two weeks in Miami.

Kyle Busch clinched a spot in the championship round with his victory last weekend at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. joined him Sunday, Harvick by winning and Truex via points.

That leaves five drivers battling for one spot.

“I would have taken this points day before the day started,’’ Hamlin said. “My competitors obviously performed well and stretched the lead out.’’

He could have been in a better spot if Keselowski had not recovered from his Lap 1 contact with Busch.

“Long day,’’ Keselowski said. “This is the best we’ve run on a mile-and-a-half in some time, so happy about that. Disappointed with the way the race started. Probably cost us 10 or more points. Happy with the rebound.’’

Keselowski isn’t taking his 19-point lead for granted.

“I need more than that,’’ he said. “I’d feel confident if we were locked in. These races you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

It could have been worse for Hamlin as well. Crew chief Mike Wheeler had the second pick of pit stalls and picked the pit stall behind pole-winner Kurt Busch instead of taking a stall with an opening for easier access in or out.

Wheeler admits he was frustrated with Busch’s team early in the race with Kurt Busch stopping short and making it more difficult for Hamlin to exit his pits.

“I was hoping the 41 would be 100 percent professional,’’ Wheeler told NBC Sports. “Obviously, they were trying to help a teammate out. They played their cards the way they did. I was frustrated. I thought he’s a veteran and knows that we’re going to race again next year, but then again, maybe he’s got orders. He didn’t really screw us over either. That’s part of the sport. Would I (pick that stall) again? I don’t know. It still got us track position when we needed it.’’

Hamlin also had issues on the track.

“We had a couple of bad restarts where I lost track position,’’ he said. “We had to take two tires to get that track position back and I wasn’t able to hold those guys off with four tires.’’

There’s no guarantee Hamlin or Keselowski will end up with the final transfer spot to Miami. Ryan Blaney is 22 points behind Keselowski heading to Phoenix.

“We need to go try and win the race,’’ Blaney said. “That’s really the only thing we can do, so I’m proud of the effort by the team today. We didn’t start off very good and we got really good towards the middle and had one run where I was super-loose towards the end. I gave up like five spots.’’

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott (49 points out of a transfer spot) and Jimmie Johnson (51 back) need to win at Phoenix to contend for a title in two weeks in Miami.

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