This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.
The round of 12 kicked off last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Denny Hamlin eased away to victory to become the first driver to lock himself into the penultimate round of championship elimination races. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was quick all night and made the win possible by keeping on top of the changing track conditions while others dealt with more inconsistent machines through the race's 400 miles. Gibbs teammates filled three of the top four spots, which shows the organization has closed the gap to Hendrick Motorsports on the 1.5-mile ovals. That could be an indicator that Hamlin may soon become the championship favorite over Kyle Larson, who has carried that title most of the season.
Two unpredictable races remain for the remaining 11 championship competitors to join Hamlin in the next round. Perhaps the most unpredictable is up first this week at Talladega. The superspeedway is known for unexpected finishes and comes full of unknowns and concerns due to its tendency to produce multicar crashes, which could end playoff hopes in the blink of an eye. Hamlin is the defending race winner, but Brad Keselowski drove to Victory Lane there earlier this year.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin got out front early in Sunday's trip West to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver kept his car there all evening, too. He finished third in the opening stage, won the second segment and then continued on to lead 137 total laps to