NASCAR: How Denny Hamlin benefited from his own incident

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Because of how the end of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race played out, Denny Hamlin is finally locked into the 2021 playoffs.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin winning the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season championship appeared to be a foregone conclusion a few months ago, as he built up a triple digit lead on the next closest driver in the point standings.

Because the regular season champion is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs whether he wins a regular season race or not, it was looking as though even a winless Hamlin would be in the playoffs no matter how many different winners emerged.

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However, Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson was able to reel Hamlin in, and he and Hamlin were tied in the point standings following the race at Watkins Glen International.

Larson was officially classified as the leader since he had five wins, compared to Hamlin’s none.

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As a result, Hamlin was no longer in position to secure the guaranteed playoff berth, and with 13 different winners and three regular season race remaining, this put him in a little bit of danger.

The formula was simple: if three new winners were to emerge in these three races and Hamlin were to be unable to pass Larson in points, the lone driver to qualify for the last two Championship 4s would not even be in the playoffs.

Hamlin led an overtime restart in Sunday’s inaugural race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Later on in the lap, he was spun out by Stewart-Haas Racing rookie Chase Briscoe, knocking him out of contention.

And because of how everything unfolded, he locked up a playoff spot.

The lap began with Hamlin running wide into turn one, forcing Briscoe to cut the track and go across the grass.

Thinking that all he needed to do to avoid a penalty was give the position back to Hamlin, Briscoe slid into second place behind Hamlin. But it was then determined that he would be given a stop-go penalty, therefore removing him from contention for the win.

Briscoe, however, didn’t know that, and he made contact with the rear end of Hamlin’s #11 Toyota, sending him spinning.

With Briscoe receiving a penalty and Hamlin out of contention, the win was effectively handed to the driver who had been running in third place: Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger.

Yes, Allmendinger became the 14th different winner of the 2021 season.

But no, this didn’t hurt Hamlin.

It instead clinched him a playoff berth.

Allmendinger is a full-time Xfinity Series driver and a part-time Cup Series driver. He does not compete for Cup Series points, so his win did nothing as far as securing a Cup Series playoff berth.

With two races remaining in the regular season, there can now be a maximum of 15 different playoff eligible winners in the 2021 regular season, so Hamlin can finish no lower than 16th place in the playoff picture.

He cannot drop behind the next highest winless driver in the point standings, as he sits 198 points ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. A maximum of 55 points are on the table for non-winners in each race.

Had this whole scenario not transpired like it did, Briscoe may very well have become a first-time winner and locked himself into the playoffs, and it would still be possible for Hamlin to miss the playoffs.

Of course, Hamlin would have benefited in his regular season title battle with Larson, who now leads by 22 points after a third place finish, by not finishing in 23rd, but even a second place finish would have left considerable uncertainty for him ahead of the regular season’s final two races at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.

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While the five extra playoff points (15 as opposed to 10) he would gain by winning the regular season championship as opposed to finishing in second place would still be nice, now Hamlin doesn’t have to worry about simply making the playoffs anymore.