The NASCAR Cup Series regular season only has four races remaining on the schedule in which bubble drivers can lock up a spot in the playoffs. There are several men with secure spots due to wins, but Denny Hamlin is not among this group. In fact, the points leader could technically miss the chase for the championship trophy if two things happened.
The first factor that would lead to Hamlin potentially missing the playoffs is the points standings. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry has remained atop the standings since the second race of the season after building up what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. This advantage was key considering that a playoff spot automatically goes to the points leader, even if he doesn’t win a race.
However, his lead continued to shrink as Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson continued to rack up wins and top-five finishes. Now that there are four races remaining, Hamlin only has a 13-point lead over his peer.
If Larson managed to overtake Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 would drop out of the top spot and clear down to 14th. He would be the top winless driver and above the playoff cut line. Though he would have to worry about other drivers knocking him out of contention during the remaining races, something that is entirely possible.
More Winners Could Knock Hamlin Out of the Playoffs
Unlike the 2020 season that featured few drivers combining for a multitude of wins, the 2021 schedule has featured a wide variety of men in Victory Lane. 13 of the 16 playoff drivers have won a race, including first-timers in Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell.
With four races remaining, there is a scenario where 16 or more drivers win. If so, NASCAR would use the number of races and the overall points to determine the playoff field. Multi-race winners in Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott would all have automatic spots. The remainder would go to the regular-season points champion and the single-race race winners with the most points.
If Hamlin lost his lead in the standings to Larson, he would be out of the playoffs if 16 or more drivers won races. It would not matter that he consistently contended for top-five finishes and built up points at a staggering rate. The drivers with wins would still knock him below the cut line.
Hamlin Will Likely End the Season in the Playoffs
While there is a scenario in which Hamlin misses the playoffs, it most likely will not occur. Instead, the driver of the No. 11 will probably join his peers in the 16-man field to pursue the Bill France Cup championship trophy.
There are two reasons why Hamlin will likely reach the playoffs. The first is the remaining regular-season schedule. There are two races at road courses — Watkins Glen International and Indianapolis Motor Speedway — which will heavily favor previous winners Elliott, Truex, and Busch. All three have reached Victory Lane at Watkins Glen, along with Hamlin.
Additionally, Hamlin has five combined wins at Daytona International Speedway and Michigan Speedway, the other two tracks remaining on the regular-season schedule. Given his experience at three of these tracks, as well as the speed of his stock car, Hamlin will likely cap off his summer with even more finishes inside the top five and a potential win.
The other reason why Hamlin will likely reach the playoffs is the remaining field of drivers. There are not many that have competitive enough stock cars to achieve this goal. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon are both options due to previous wins at Daytona International Speedway. Tyler Reddick is another due to a recent run of strong performances.
While all three drivers could potentially reach Victory Lane and knock Hamlin out of contention for the championship, there is no guarantee that they will achieve this goal. They have contended for top-10 finishes but have not really fought for the checkered flag. Stenhouse, in particular, has struggled with mechanical issues in recent races after starting the season with a string of top-15 finishes.