The NASCAR Cup Series returns this weekend after its Olympics break with a welcome return to Watkins Glen, but who is leading the standings and who needs to improve as playoff cutoff looms?
Hamlin leads the way from Larson
Watkins Glen hosts the first NASCAR Cup Series race in three weeks on Sunday, after the mid-season break for the Tokyo Olympics.
The popular road course in New York state returns to the calendar after dropping off the covid-19 hit 2020 schedule.
With just four rounds left remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin at Darlington, time is short for those hoping to scrape in.
Despite not winning a Cup race so far this season, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin currently sits atop the standings.
Hamlin’s lead is built on the consistency he has shown throughout the regular season in his Toyota Camry machine.
He has accumulated 874 points, including 15 top 10 finishes and five stage wins.
Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports sits just 13 points behind the triple Daytona 500 winner.
Larson has four race wins and 12 stage victories to his name.
Work to do for Hamlin and Harvick
The likes of Larson, reigning champion Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are already safely through to the playoffs.
The ‘win-and-you’re in’ nature to securing playoff qualification makes it a certainty that they will be among the 16 to go through.
However, Hamlin, despite his strong points haul is still in danger of missing the cutline.
With four races remaining in the regular season, should four new drivers take victories in these races, Hamlin would be eliminated.
It is unlikely, and his huge points buffer should be enough to see him through.
But if Hamlin does not secure a win, Gibbs will be more worried than it should.
Given team-mates Busch and Martin Truex Jr have multiple wins, Hamlin lack of is a major surprise.
The other big casualty could be Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick dominated Cup in 2020, winning 25% of all races, but SHR has struggled in ’21, leaving the veteran winless.
He is in a similar position to Hamlin, in that his points buffer should be sufficient, but the #4 needs to address the alarming drop-off quickly.
Two into one doesn’t go
Assuming Hamlin (+283) and Harvick (+82) make it through on points, then there will be just one available place in the playoffs.
Aric Almirola’s shock win in the last race before the break at New Hampshire secured his place as the 13th driver locked in.
The tightest battle is that between the Richard Childress Racing pair of Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon.
Reddick, driving the #8 Chevrolet Camaro currently enjoys a slender margin of five points over Dillon’s #3.
Both could make it through or both could be eliminated.
Dillon squeaked through last season, thanks to a win over then-rookie Reddick at Texas in a RCR one-two.
The final race of the regular season is at Daytona, a track where surprise winners are not that surprising.
Who is best placed to break into the playoffs?
The likes of Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, and Bubba Wallace – racing for the Michael Jordan-backed 23XI Racing all need to win.
Their respective points situations, all over 100 below the cutline means it is nearly impossible for them to point their way in.