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In chase for record, it all comes down to December's deals

UPDATED: 12/2/15 1:15 pm ET -- Mercedes sales results added

It’s been a great year for U.S. auto sales. Monthly totals keep beating expectations -- and year-ago numbers.

So a solid November isn’t a surprise. But it didn’t end the suspense: Will 2015 U.S. auto sales surpass the 17.4 million record set in 2000?

The short answer: More likely than not.

“It’ll be a photo finish,” says Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at TrueCar. “In my gut, I think we’ll beat [2000].”

Personally, I’m delighted to even have this conversation. It’s taken a decade and a half to get back to having a shot at the sales record. Last December, few forecasters saw 2015 much above 17 million.

Then, the hope was for third best all-time, perhaps bumping 1999’s 16.95 million off the podium, but no realistic shot at the 2001 silver of 17.2 million or 2000’s gold. Even that hope wavered as brutally cold weather slammed January and February.

So it’s great, after mushing through the snow, to rediscover this fall that we’re on pace to exceed the original 17 million goal.

Still, it’s a tough race to handicap: 2000 started hot and cooled, 2015 started slow then heated up. Through November, 11-month sales this year are still about a third of a million units short of 2000’s. That’s a huge number to make up in just 31 days.

But 2000 had a lousy December, even for what was a traditionally sleepy month back then: 1,243,695 sales. Except for the depths of the Great Recession, that’s the worst December this century.

So what will we need to win? The best December ever, that’s all.

To beat 2000 by one unit better than 2000, the industry must sell 1,575,853 autos in December. Let’s call it 1.58 million to ensure the record sticks after 2015 reported numbers are audited.

December 2014 sales were 1,507,229 units, so we need 4.6 percent more for the record. Is that a reasonable goal? Through 11 months, 2015 sales are running 5.4 percent higher than 2014.

We’re coming down to the wire, 2015 still trailing but making a furious finishing kick to chase an exhausted and cramping foe.

Which year prevails?

The record is there if automakers want it. Incentives are creeping higher, but not dangerously so.

My bet? I don’t think automakers can resist. They’ll tweak the spiffs enough to leave 2000 behind.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@autonews.com -- Follow Jesse on Twitter: https://twitter.com/spartyjesse

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