In Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which served as the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Denny Hamlin finally did it. After a nearly flawless performance, where he even held off a Kyle Larson video-game move on the final lap (VIDEO LINK), Hamlin etched his name as a winner for the first time in what has been a super competitive 2021 season.
While the 40-year old driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine has been consistent all season long, the one thing he has lacked, to make people feel like he can truly go toe-to-toe with Larson for the championship, has been trophies being brought back to the JGR shop.
Now, that Hamlin finally has a win, which came in one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events, no less, does this elevate Hamlin into being a favorite for the championship?
Sure, the win was nice. And it was something I’m sure the No. 11 team needed to have happen from a mental standpoint heading into the remainder of the Playoffs, but a win in the Southern 500 at Darlington, since the current Playoff format was installed in 2014, has not really meant much as far as determining a champion.
Aside from Kevin Harvick winning the Southern 500 and going on to win the championship in the opening season of this new-style elimination Playoff format, the best any Southern 500 champion has gone on to finish in the final Playoff point standings is fifth.
Where Southern 500 Winners Have Finished in the Playoffs
2014: Kevin Harvick, 1st
2015: Carl Edwards, 5th
2016: Martin Truex Jr., 11th
2017: Denny Hamlin, 6th
2018: Brad Keselowski, 8th
2019: Erik Jones, 16th
2020: Kevin Harvick, 5th
2021: Denny Hamlin, ?
For those who say, “Yeah, but Hamlin has been so consistent this season, he has 18 top-10 finishes through 27 races. This doesn’t apply to him.”
Let me present Kevin Harvick’s 2020 season as evidence.
Harvick’s 2020 Southern 500 win, in the 27th race of the year last season, marked his 22nd top-10 finish of the campaign, and it was Harvick’s seventh win of the year to that point.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, who completed all but three laps in 2020 (a record) and went on to have an average finish of 7.3 for 2020 (Hamlin’s current average finish is 8.8), finished fifth in the championship standings.
It’s far too early in the Playoffs to say any one moment or victory means someone is an overwhelming favorite in the championship race. To say otherwise would simply be misleading, as evidenced by the fact that no Southern 500 champion has gone on to the Championship 4 since the first-ever year of this Playoff format, seven years ago.
But there is more reasoning to it than simply what seems to be a six-year jinx for drivers winning the Southern 500 in the Playoffs. Hamlin’s win on Sunday, solidified his spot in the Round of 12 of the Playoffs, but when he gets to that round, he must continue to deliver.
After Sunday’s race at Darlington, Hamlin added six more Playoff points to his season’s bounty (five for the race win, one for a Stage win), but even with that extra boost, there are still four drivers (Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch) with a higher total of Playoff Points, which carry through every round, than Hamlin and one driver (Chase Elliott) who is tied with Hamlin at 21 Playoff Points.
In that group of drivers is the most dominant driver of 2021 (Larson) and three NASCAR Cup Series champions (Truex, Busch and Elliott).
Of the drivers on this list, only Kyle Busch is currently outside the cutline after Darlington. Until this herd of drivers is thinned out, Hamlin shouldn’t start feeling ultra-confident of his Championship 4 hopes, just yet, because every time a new round of the Playoffs begins, he will be reseeded below the drivers with more Playoff Points than him.
Simply put: he must keep the pedal to the metal.
The third reason to feel leery of a potential Championship run for Denny Hamlin is the fact that every year since this format was instituted, the eventual champion has hoisted the championship trophy by winning in the season’s final race. With the season riding on one do-or-die result at Phoenix Raceway, if Hamlin indeed makes the Championship 4, it’s hard to believe a driver and team, with only one win going into the final race, like the No. 11 team currently, can pull off a win at will despite only putting up one victory in the first 27 races of 2021.
Even with Hamlin being a driver who excels at Phoenix, to feel that they’re truly capable of turning it on when they want, you would have to see at least one more win leading up to the season finale.
Winning Darlington is nice for Hamlin and the No. 11 team, but they still have a lot of work to do if they want to go on to win the ultimate prize — the NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.