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NASCAR’s final 4 in fun mode

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Three contenders for the NASCAR championship have already given Kyle Busch a good run for the money three days before the race.

Busch and teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were stuck in New York City traffic with Kevin Harvick and the Joe Gibbs Racing trio decided Busch couldn’t run to the hotel faster than they could get there by car. There was $1,000 on the line and a videographer on hand to follow Busch’s jog through Manhattan snow flurries.

Hamlin, the ringleader of the impromptu contest, joked Thursday that sending Busch out for the run was part of a bigger plan.

“Just trying to hamper my competition, get him some shin splits, maybe a sore throat,” Hamlin said.

Busch won the bet, and he is ready to cash in again in the winner-take-all shootout Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This is how things are most of the time in today’s NASCAR, where side bets and hijinks and camaraderie are far more common than cutthroat competition. It helps explain why this final foursome is so relaxed, Gibbs’ trio of Toyota drivers Busch, Hamlin and Truex as well as Harvick in a Ford from Stewart-Haas Racing.

All but Hamlin are former series champions and he’s the newcomer in a group that otherwise includes drivers racing for the title for a third consecutive season.

Hamlin, whose last championship chance came in 2014, won last weekend at Phoenix to save his season and earn a spot in the final — a race that falls one day before his 39th birthday. Hamlin tends to use the two-race stretch of Phoenix and Miami to unwind; last week, despite facing elimination, he rented a house with a pool and tennis court and had a “boy’s weekend” with fellow title challenger Kyle Larson and others that included a Post Malone concert.

It’s a safe bet that before the 1992 finale, the closest championship race in NASCAR history, the likes of Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Rusty Wallace did not share an Airbnb playing tennis against each other for money into the early morning hours.

Still, Hamlin showed a tinge of old school confidence when he corrected questions Thursday that began “if you win the championship” to “when” he wins.

“We’re going to have fun. It’s my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said.

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