NASCAR: Could Denny Hamlin still be in trouble?

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite owning a victory, Denny Hamlin’s playoff chances continue to shrink with each passing NASCAR Cup Series race. That happened again Sunday.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin presumably punched his ticket to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs by winning the early April race at Richmond Raceway.

But “presumably” may not be enough for the driver who has not recorded a single top 12 finish in any of the other 11 events that have been run so far to kick off the Gen 7 era.

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The playoff format is widely dubbed a “win and in” format, but technically speaking, this is not the most accurate way to describe it.

The 16 playoff spots go to the regular season points champion (winner or not) and the 15 drivers who rank next highest in wins.

So if there are more than 16 winners in the regular season, a race win isn’t necessarily a ticket to the postseason; there are 26 regular season races, and the playoffs are indeed capped at 16 drivers.

Should there be more than 16 regular season race winners, all multi-race winners are locked in; nobody with at least two wins can drop outside of the top 16 in the wins category, as there can be, at most, 13 two-race winners. However, the tiebreaker among the single-race winners would then become points.

Through 12 races this year, there have been 10 different winners. Less than a week after Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott became winner number nine, Team Penske’s Joey Logano became winner number 10 in Sunday afternoon’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway.

Still, several contenders have yet to win this year. In fact, eight full-time drivers who won last year have not yet done so this year. So there is a legitimate possibility that at least six different new winners could emerge over the course of the regular season’s final 14 races, in which case Hamlin could find himself in trouble.

Of the 10 race winners so far this season, Hamlin, who has qualified for the playoffs in eight straight seasons going back to 2014, ranks lowest in points, sitting in a 22nd place tie overall.

What will comfort him here is the fact that he has actually managed to reel in the next lowest winner, Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric. Cindric sits in 18th place, just 27 points ahead of Hamlin, with only one top 10 finish in the 11 races that have been contested since his season-opening Daytona 500 win at Daytona International Speedway.

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Hamlin’s best bet to lock into the playoffs is probably to win again, knowing that he can’t fall out of the top 13 in the wins category with a second victory. Winning again will surely beat having to worry about points and about how many other new winners emerge over the next three and a half months before the 16-driver postseason field is solidified.