The NASCAR Cup Series season is eight races deep, and the playoff picture is starting to take shape. Seven drivers have won races so far, but none sit at the top of the points standings. That honor belongs to Denny Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry.
Hamlin has not stepped foot on Victory Lane in 2021 after winning seven times in 2020. However, he has remained one of the most consistent drivers. According to Racing Reference, Hamlin has finished in the top five in seven different races and outside only once. He placed 11th in the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Based on his performances in the early portions of the 2021 season, Hamlin currently has 379 points. This number places him atop the official NASCAR standings. Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who has won two races so far, sits just behind him with 303 points. Team Penske’s Joey Logano (303), Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson (280), and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney (272) round out the top five.
Hamlin is no stranger to success in his 17-year Cup career
The 40-year-old Hamlin first entered the top-level Cup Series in 2005. He participated in seven of the 36 races and scored three top-10 finishes in the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet as a rookie. Despite not winning a race, he still set the stage for future success.
Hamlin’s first win took place in 2016 at Pocono Raceway, his first season as a full-time driver. He started in the pole position and led 83 of the 200 possible laps. This performance provided a glimpse at Hamlin’s dominance and began a streak of 12 consecutive seasons in which he won at least one race.
Hamlin has continued to win big races in his career, posting a career-best eight victories in 2010, five in 2012, and six in 2019. His list of achievements includes three victories at the Daytona 500 and two at the Southern 500. Both races are “Crown Jewel” events, along with the Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400.
The Cup Series playoff picture is nowhere near finalized
Winning a race has traditionally meant that the driver will appear in the playoffs. The 2021 season has created doubts about that trend. With seven different drivers winning the first seven races of the season, there was a possibility that there would be more winners than available spots.
Only 16 drivers advance to the playoffs, but there are 26 races in the regular season. The regular-season points champion secures a spot, as do the 15 drivers with the most wins. Hamlin is currently on pace to finish the season with the points championship even if he does not win a race. However, history indicates that he will reach Victory Lane at least once. The doubleheader at Pocono Raceway is the most likely option given Hamlin’s six previous victories at the “Tricky Triangle.”
If men such as Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 winner Christopher Bell don’t continue performing well after reaching Victory Lane, they could finish the regular season below the cutoff line.
Truex, however, does not have to worry about his playoff future. He won the InstaCart 500 at Phoenix Raceway in March and then returned to Victory Lane after Sunday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. This second victory ensured that Truex was the first driver to “officially” reach the playoffs, per Beyond the Flag.
The Cup Series season continues on Sunday with the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. The race will take place at 3 p.m. ET and will air on Fox. Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, and Mike Joy will provide the call from the booth as more drivers strive to officially secure a spot in the playoffs.