The NASCAR Cup Series has seen only one points leader other than Denny Hamlin in 2021, and that other driver has now fallen out of the playoff picture.
Hamlin has not yet won a race through the first 22 races of the 26-race regular season, but he would still be in the playoffs with where he is now — even if there end up being more than 16 different winners, as the regular season points champion is in regardless. The odds that he doesn’t get into the playoffs are small with just four races remaining in the regular season .
But the driver of the #11 Toyota has seen his lead in the point standings shrink from over 100 points to just 13, with second place Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports having closed the gap significantly over the last few months.
However, Hamlin’s situation is not nearly as dire as the situation of the only other driver who has led the standings this season.
After the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, it was Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon who sat atop the point standings.
Dillon has had a solid 2021 season thus far. Having qualified on the playoffs with a win in three of the last four seasons, he has appeared all season to be in a good position to get in on points for the first time since 2016. But even though he sits in 13th place in the point standings, he now finds himself outside of the 16-driver playoff picture.
Entering the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he sat 104 points above the playoff cut line. However, he only sat eight points ahead of the 16th and final driver above the cut line, teammate Tyler Reddick.
This was significant in the scenario that an upset winner from outside the playoff picture should emerge and move the cut line up by a sport.
That’s exactly what happened at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
After entering the race at the four-turn, 1.058-mile (1.703-kilometer) oval in Loudon, New Hampshire in 27th place in the point standings, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola secured the victory to vault himself up into the playoff picture, despite the fact that he still only sits in a 23rd place tie.
And Dillon, who scored 20 points with a 17th place finish, dropped behind Reddick, who scored 33 with a fifth place finish in stage one (6), an eighth place finish in stage two (3) and a 13th place finish in the race (24).
So he is now five points below the cut line, marking a massive 109-swing in the wrong direction from where he started the weekend.
With 13 different winners so far this season, only the top three non-winners in the point standings are currently in the playoff picture. Those drivers include first place Hamlin, 10th place Kevin Harvick, and 12th place Reddick.
Winners below Dillon in the point standings include 14th place Kurt Busch, 15th place Christopher Bell, 19th place Michael McDowell and T-23rd place Almirola.
Can Dillon get himself back into the playoff picture before the regular season ends? The next race on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the Go Bowling at The Glen, which is set to be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network from Watkins Glen International beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, August 8.