Denny Hamlin on Verge of NASCAR Playoff Berth at Darlington Raceway

The veteran looks to clinch his spot in the Chase on Sunday, and his track record at Darlington bodes will for his chances.

byAmanda Vincent|
NASCAR photo


Leading up to this weekend's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington, Denny Hamlin is just eight points away from clinching a 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR playoff berth. Sunday marks the penultimate race of the 26-race regular season. If Hamlin is able to achieve the feat at Darlington, he’ll become the 13th driver to make his way into the Chase with 16 available spots in total.

The 12 drivers who have already clinched playoff berths did so either by winning at least one regular season race or by holding a high enough position in the points standings with a significant cushion on drivers behind them. Kevin Harvick leads the way in wins with seven, and Kyle Busch has six. Two other drivers have multiple wins—Martin Truex Jr. with four and Clint Bowyer with two. Other 2018 race winners, to this point, include Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones. Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson locked up positions in the playoffs by the end of the checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee on Aug. 18.

The paint scheme on Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the 2018 Darlington race is reminiscent his first car from 1997., Getty Images for NASCAR

Hamlin could hit his mark as early as the end of Stage 1 by running third or better at Lap 100. Even without earning points in either of the first two 100-lap stages, Hamlin would clinch a playoff berth at Darlington with a race finish of 33rd or better. With stage points, the necessary race finish will drop accordingly, a position per point.

Hamlin, though, is only interested in winning the race.

“To win. That’s the only thing that we come here for,” Hamlin said in a race preview press release from Toyota. "We haven’t been points racing for a long time, now, simply because we know based off just our average performance and what an average year it’s been, we’re going to be fine on points. We care about winning, and that’s the only thing that I care about. Running better is very, very important to us at this point, so we’re doing everything we can to work hard and get to that level that we want to be at. Winning one of these next two would, for sure, help with the momentum going into the playoffs, but momentum is only as good as that weekend. Just 'cause you win this week, on Monday it does nothing for you for next week. Sometimes momentum is overstated. It’s just about how you’re performing on any given week.”

Hamlin is the only driver who is in control of his own playoff destiny at Darlington, not needing any help in the form of performances by any of his fellow competitors. Among other drivers looking to claim playoff spots, Aric Almirola has the most say over his position in the hunt. He would clinch after earning at least 25 points Sunday, as long as the race is won by a driver who already has at least one victory this season.

Denny Hamlin wins 2017 Southern 500

, Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag to win the 2017 Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 3 last year., Getty Images for NASCAR

A playoff lock on points also is a possibility for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, but to clinch on points as early as Darlington, Johnson will need some help. Anyone else looking to lock up a playoff berth on Sunday would need to win the Southern 500. Hamlin is the defending winner of the race and has two career Darlington Raceway wins to his credit. Johnson has the most Darlington among Sunday’s entrants with three.

"It’s just something about the racetrack that fits my particular driving style,” Hamlin said.