This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.
Denny Hamlin earned his long-awaited first win of 2021 at the perfect time in Sunday's Southern 500. It was the first race of the 2021 championship playoffs, which sends the No. 11 machine right on through to the round of 12 regardless of what happens in the next two races. Hamlin nearly swept the weekend with a strong showing in Saturday's Xfinity Series race, too. Were it not for a late penalty in Saturday's race he might have left the track with two victories in his pocket. His performance Sunday was not to be denied, however. He won the opening stage and then held Kyle Larson at bay in the final miles to score his first, much-deserved, victory in 2021.
The race was a rough one for much of the championship field. Seven of the 16 playoff drivers finished in the top 10, but four finished lower than 30th. Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Michael McDowell all had terrible nights and leave the first race of the round of 16 behind the cutoff line. Richmond Raceway will give them a chance to recover before Bristol determines the field for the round of 12, but none of those drivers have much margin to have another bad race. Other than Hamlin, and maybe Kyle Larson, no driver will feel entirely confident with two short-tracks ahead. A slim 26 points separates Kurt Busch in fourth from Tyler Reddick and Bowman straddling the elimination cutline.