The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoff picture became clearer after the Southern 500.
Once Erik Jones picked up the win and Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Aric Almirola were also locked into the post-season on points, only two spots remain entering this weekend’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Four drivers are still eligible to advance to the Playoffs on points—Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. These are the same competitors that were on or around the bubble entering Darlington Raceway before the Lady in Black delivered her usual dose of drama.
Bowyer and Newman flipped positions in the standings and are currently 15th and 17th, respectively. Suarez remains 16th—the final spot on the grid. He and Newman have an equal number of points, but the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford holds the tiebreaker based on highest finish, Suarez’s third-place result at Texas Motor Speedway in March.
And then there’s Johnson. The seven-time champion has never missed the Playoffs since NASCAR introduced the program in 2004, but he has been on the outside looking in for the last month and hasn’t been in the top 10 in points since leaving Speedweeks at Daytona in February.
A victory from any of these contenders—or a driver outside of the top 14 in the standings and inside the top 30—would eliminate one of the Playoff berths. Paul Menard is the only driver outside the four remaining contenders who has won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Matt DiBenedetto and Austin Dillon have top-10 finishes on the 2.5-mile track. Still, any of the above-mentioned drivers would have to beat the cream of the crop, and that’s not likely.
Here’s how the bubble boys line up entering Indy:
Clint Bowyer—Bowyer leads the group with five top fives and 11 top 10s but his average finish of 16.1 is representative of an inconsistent season. He has wrecked four times in the last 11 races. Even with a seventh-place result at Bristol, Bowyer fell out of the top-16 for the first time in 2019.
Despite qualifying 13th at Darlington, Bowyer picked up points in Stage 2. Bowyer found Johnson’s lucky horseshoe in the final segment. He was running 11th when a multi-car wreck on Lap 276 collected Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, both who had two of the fastest cars on Sunday, along with Johnson, who was running sixth at the time. Bowyer salvaged a sixth-place results—above the other three contenders—and returned to the top 16.
“We put ourselves back in position, but, kid you not, yes, I want to make the Playoffs, but I want to make the Playoffs to get past the first round and to hit that thing in stride and race to our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “(Darlington) was our capability. Single-digit finishes we’re capable of rattling off, and this was a good shot in the arm, a momentum boost for our race team going into that last race in Indy, and if we can do that again is what I’m looking for because, again, you always have to be looking down the road.”
Bowyer has an eight-point advantage over Suarez and Newman. He led 37 laps at Indy last year before finishing fifth—his third-career top five. His average finish at the Brickyard is 14.2. He has finished among the top 10 in 21 stages this season.
Daniel Suarez—Suarez finished 11th at Darlington after starting fifth. He solidified his position in the playoff standings, but he made an enemy in the process by sending Newman into the spin cycle at Darlington. Although the driver said he never made contact with Newman and described the incident as “a racing thing,” the video paints a different picture. The drivers did not speak after the race, and Suarez might want to extend an olive branch before taking to the track on Saturday. If he thought Newman was hard to pass before, that No. 6 Ford will likely grow wider as the season rolls on.
Suarez appears more relaxed since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing this season. He has already equalled his stats from last year with one pole, three top fives and nine top 10s and shaved three positions from his average finish to 15th.
“My team has been strong,” Suarez said. “I feel like (at Darlington) we missed it a little bit. We had a faster car than 11th, but we just missed it for whatever reason heading into the race. We have to study what happened and come back stronger.
“I think we’re putting on a good show for all the fans, and now being tied heading to Indianapolis that makes things even more interesting, so I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Suarez finished seventh in his Brickyard 400 debut. He’s completed every lap in his two starts at the track.
Ryan Newman—In his first season with Roush Fenway Racing, Newman has made the most of the equipment he drives. For a driver with 51-career Cup poles, his average qualifying effort of 19.8 has the veteran battling from behind on a weekly basis—and Darlington was no exception. Newman qualified 24th and had worked his way up to 19th when Suarez spun him out in Turn 2. Newman dropped to 30th and recovered for 23rd-place result but lost his 12-point cushion in the process.
“We got spun and we came back, and we did not have a top 10 finish, so it’s unfortunate,” Newman said. “We lost some points today, but we’ve got a lot of fight in us and we’ll go into the last one here in the regular season and fight.”
Unlike the two competitors ahead of him, the South Bend, Indiana, native has a won at his home track, where he has also posted three top fives and five top 10s. Newman’s average qualifying effort of 9.7 at Indy leads the tour. He’ll need a solid qualifying effort to pad his performance with stage points—a task he’s had difficulty achieving with mid-pack start this year. In 25 races, Newman has only finished in the top 10 in Stage 1 once—at Talladega.
Jimmie Johnson—Although Johnson has yet to post a DNF in 2019 his average finish of 16.2 is about where he has run all season. Still, Johnson was doing everything right at Darlington. He qualified sixth, finished second in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2. The No. 48 Ally Chevy was running sixth when he was involved in a six-car wreck with 90 laps remaining in the Southern 500, and his car was never the same. Despite an eventual 16th-place finish, the bonus points he earned in the stages cut his 26-point deficit to 18.
“I had at least 15 years with a lot of luck on my side, seven years of championships and having 2 or 3 bad ones is just part of it,” Johnson said. “I keep saying that we’re getting better and tonight we showed it, from the way we qualified to how we ran on those stages. I was running fourth when that accident took place in Turn 3 and I just had nowhere to go.”
Johnson seemed resigned to the fact that this just might not be his year. But he is the only driver among these four with a stage win in 2019 and has picked up stage points in 17 races. Johnson also leads all current drivers with four wins at Indy. He hasn’t kissed the bricks since 2012 but has led 302 laps and has six top fives and seven top 10s in 17 starts.