Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway, but a slew of other drivers arguably benefited more than he did.
Just one year after he thought he had become the winningest NASCAR Cup Series driver in Pocono Raceway history, only to be disqualified after the race, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin officially secured a record-breaking seventh victory at the Tricky Triangle in Sunday afternoon’s HighPoint.com 400.
Before his win in this 160-lap race around the three-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Long Pond, Pennsylvania oval, Hamlin was one of seven drivers who had won exactly one of the season’s first 20 races.
He is now one of five drivers with multiple wins this season. The other four include Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson, Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.
Because of how the NASCAR Cup Series playoff format is set up, winning twice is the only way to officially secure a playoff spot early in the season.
There are 26 regular season races and 16 playoff spots. So there can technically be more than 16 playoff eligible drivers when the postseason begins, in which case not all of them would qualify.
The 16 playoff spots go to the regular season champion, even if he hasn’t won a race, and the 15 drivers who rank next highest in race victories. With 26 regular season races, there can be no more than 13 multi-race winners before the playoffs.
If there are more than 16 winners (or more than 15, if there is a winless regular season champion), the tiebreaker to determine which single-race winners get into the playoffs and which don’t becomes points.
As a result, Hamlin was never at risk of missing the playoffs, even though he had only won once this season. He entered Sunday’s race in fourth place in the point standings, making him the second highest of seven single-race winners.
FanDuel Sportsbook, which is offering fans an instant $100 just for betting $5, lists Hamlin as the fifth favorite to win this year’s championship at +800.
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The big winners of Sunday’s race were the drivers who find themselves battling for the final few playoff spots behind the 11 playoff-eligible race winners at the top of the provisional playoff picture.
While they all would have liked to win the race for themselves, Hamlin winning was the next best thing. It prevented a 12th driver from jumping into a provisional playoff spot and thus leaving only four playoff spots open over the course of the regular season’s final five races.
Hamlin’s win also prevented the playoff cut line from moving up. It still sits between the 16th and 17th place drivers. To compare, it ended up between the third and fourth place drivers last season, and fourth place Martin Truex Jr. missed the postseason entirely.
With just five races remaining on the regular season schedule, there can now be no more than 16 regular season race winners this year. This means that the only way a winner can fail to qualify for the postseason is if the final five regular season races produce five new winners and the regular season champion ends up being winless.
The highest non-winner in the point standings is currently Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in eighth place, 110 points out of the lead, so there is not much of a chance that the regular season champion will end up being a winless driver. With that in mind, it is safe to say that all drivers who have won or will win a race this regular season are in.
This particularly helps JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the lowest of the 11 winners in the point standings. He sits in 14th place in the standings, and in the event that more than 16 drivers ended up being playoff eligible, he was the winner most at risk of losing out on the points tiebreaker.
Of course, it goes without saying that Hamlin’s win is still huge for himself. In addition to the five playoff points he gained because of the win itself, he also moved up a spot in the point standings.
Additional playoff points are awarded to the drivers who finish in the top 10 in the regular season standings, with more paid out to drivers who finish higher. They are paid out on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
Will a 12th playoff-eligible winner of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season emerge in this coming Sunday afternoon’s Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway? The race is set to be broadcast live on USA Network beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET. Begin a free trial of FuboTV today and tune in!