With just six more races left in the regular season for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, six drivers in 13th through 18th place are within 31 points of each other. It’s a tight race for those last few spots, and a win could spoil the party even further.
But who has the best shot with six tracks nowhere near related to each other?
I’m talking about Pocono Raceway first, then the high speed Watkins Glen International Raceway. After that, we go to our last 2-mile oval of the year at Michigan International Speedway, with Bristol Motor Speedway as the last race in August. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series holds their Labor Day tradition at the track “Too Tough To Tame”, Darlington Raceway, and then the legendary Brickyard 400 to close out the regular season.
Maybe Pocono has some relation to a couple of these tracks with its three differing corners, but as a whole, these six circuits are incomparable to each other.
So let’s first look at the drivers in that tight battle for those last four points positions and who I feel will make the Playoffs.
Kyle Larson (+14, 13th in points)
Surprisingly, Larson is at the top of the bubble gap, sitting 13th in points. Even though the current package does not showcase his talent, he has finished in the top-10 in half of the races this season and currently sits higher than most would have anticipated. However, 14 points aren’t much of an advantage for Larson considering a few missed top-10 stage finishes could eliminate that cushion.
“I feel okay about it (his Playoff position) but thankful the rest of the bubble guys had issues this last race (at New Hampshire) because I DNFed and only lost nine points to the cutoff,” Larson said. “I was surprised by that.
“I do feel like our cars are definitely fast enough and capable and should be in the playoffs. As far as speed goes, I feel good about it. But obviously, I’ve got to just not make mistakes to give up a lot of points, like I could have this last weekend.”
He is 31 points ahead of both Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez, who are tied in points but below the cutoff. However, Larson doesn’t take that for granted, knowing how quickly he can lose points, can’t rely on other drivers having bad days and understanding that a win from a driver below him can quickly shake things up.
Larson has a lot of strong tracks coming up, including Pocono where he won two stages and led 35 laps in the race this June, and Michigan where he has won before. If the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team can hold their own and put together a couple good runs, they could either win their way in or squeeze in on points. My prediction is that he’ll make the Playoffs.
Erik Jones (+11, 14th in points)
“That Jones Boy” holds 14th in the points standings, despite having some strong runs and holds the most top fives and top 10’s in the year compared to these other drivers. Out of the entire Joe Gibbs Racing camp, Jones is the only one lacking a win and risking a Playoff spot.
Jones believes that if his team can clean up a few mishaps and have a little luck on their side, he could get his second career victory to lock himself into the Playoffs.
“Some of it has been our own fault. Phoenix, we had a loose wheel to start the race, blow a tire, get in the wall, ruins our day,” Jones shared earlier this summer at Daytona International Speedway. “Charlotte, we blow a right front; whether that is our fault or not, I don’t know.
“There is Bristol, loose wheel, go three laps down. There have been so many races where you take yourself out of it. That’s what you can’t do in this sport and try to make the playoffs. We have had fast cars; Sonoma, we had another good car, but we had to start in the back. Chicago, we had an okay car, but we made a good day out of it. We’ve got good cars; we just need to have things go our way. We need to execute better on our end on all fronts. Make sure we are doing all we can to get the best finish that we can.”
While he does have four top 10 finishes in the last five races, he also does have three finishes of 30th or worse, including a last-place finish after crashing out of the Coca-Cola 600 after 22 laps. That inconsistency and this tight points race could hurt him, so my vote is that Jones will miss the Playoffs after a few bad runs at places he could have gained ground.
Ryan Newman (+4, 15th in points)
The veteran knows how to close the deal in tight situations. While he may not have winning equipment at this time, Newman does know how to put together good enough runs to be exactly that: “good enough”.
I don’t mean that in a negative sense at all. In fact, of all the drivers in this list, I’d say he’s the best at this exact type of war, know when and where to pick his battles.
Take a look back in 2014. When driving for Richard Childress Racing, he was just one position shy of making the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He overcame this by punting Larson through Turns 3 and 4 to gain the extra position he needed to change his outcome. Putting Larson into the wall coming to the checkered flag gave Newman the position and point he needed to get into the final spot for the championship run in the season finale, knocking out Jeff Gordon from contention for his potential fifth championship.
It doesn’t matter the job, the obstacles, or the track. Newman knows how to get it done. He will make the 2019 Playoffs when you put that challenge in front of him. Mark my word that he’ll be in the first round of the Playoffs as a contender.
Clint Bowyer (+0, 16th in points)
When looking back to last year, Clint Bowyer was in a much different position than he is now. At this point in 2018, Bowyer had two wins at Martinsville Speedway and Michigan (June, rain-shortened), so the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team was already locked into the Playoffs. He had 10 top-10 finishes and was on pace for a good run in the postseason.
This season has been a different story though. He is already one DNF shy of matching last year’s totals, and has no wins to lock himself in.
However, with the tracks coming up, Bowyer has potential.
- Pocono (June): Fifth
- Sonoma (road course): 11th
- Bristol: 7th, with top-10 finishes at Richmond and Martinsville
Bowyer doesn’t want to go another six years without a victory, so look for him to challenge for a win and a few other strong finishes to solidify himself into the regular season. I’m going to lean more toward Bowyer making the Playoffs this year.
Jimmie Johnson (-17, 17th in points)
Jimmie Johnson is now over two years since his last Cup series victory, Dover in June 2017. And while Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet have started to find their groove, 7-Time has struggled to find consistency.
For the past four races, he’s had two top-five finishes, and two 30th place finishes. While his average start and finishing positions have improved compared to the last two years, his inconsistent results could put him into jeopardy for a Playoff position. This has put him in the first spot below the cutoff line.
With the tracks coming up and who he would have to beat on track for those spots, this could be Johnson’s first year where he will not be a part of the 16 drivers running for a championship in 2019. My vote says that this will stand.
Daniel Suarez (-17, 18th in points)
Daniel Suarez has had a roller coaster of a season. A couple of top five runs, two crashes at both Daytona races and everywhere else in between has ended him up here, 17 points below the last Playoff spot.
He had a fantastic run at Kentucky. He won the pole, led 52 laps and finished eighth. However, he only collected 29 points in total.
These last few races have been the worst in collecting stage points when compared to the other five drivers. Suarez started out strong by collecting a lot of stage points, salvaging a few where he crashed out, was caught a lap down or struggled to find speed later in the race.
- Daytona (February): finished 33rd, but collected 14 points, almost double his finishing position’s worth to salvage his season-opener DNF.
- Texas: finished third and collected 11 more points than the second-place finisher (Bowyer).
- Richmond: finished 18th but collected seven more points than 19th.
But since the June Pocono race when Suarez was 13th in points, he has only collected six stage points over six races, five at Daytona’s first stage and just one point from a 10th place running in the first stage at Loudon. He will need to pick up the pace on the stage points like he was at the beginning of the year if he’s going to secure his spot.
Suarez is hungry for his first win though. He’s not running for stage points. He’s working to put himself into a position to win. While that’s an extremely valuable experience, it will cost him those critical stage points. It depends on what he values more, but if he’s willing to sacrifice a win for six more races, my guess is that he’ll fight his way back into the Playoffs.
Drivers for the Win
With those six drivers, it’s truly anybody’s spot, just a matter of who wants it more, and maybe who might get a little luckier than others.
It doesn’t stop there. I feel there are two other drivers that could spoil the party with either a late-season surge or sneak in a potential win.
Austin Dillon (-124, 22nd in points)
Although his best finish this season is sixth, Austin Dillon has been well-known to get surprise wins at big races. His two career victories were a last lap ‘crash’ of Aric Almirola in last year’s Daytona 500, and a fuel gamble win at the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. He also earned three poles, and has led the most laps of his career in a single season already here in 2019 (69 laps).
But despite these numbers, Richard Childress Racing hasn’t really competed much up front for a win. When Dillon has led, it’s mostly due to his pole run and getting some front running time before getting caught up in traffic after green flag pit stops or losing the lead after catching lap traffic.
Don’t put it behind the No. 3 team to sneak in another big win, though. They’ve done it two years in a row, so the Brickyard 400 or the Southern 500 could be his third iconic victory at NASCAR’s top level.
Matt DiBenedetto (-176, 24th in points)
It looks like bad luck is finally behind the Hickory, NC driver. After leading the most laps of his career in a single race to kick of the season at the Daytona 500, the No. 95 team had speed, but little to no luck on their side. From mechanical failures to pit stop mishaps, ‘Guido’ has the potential to gather more strong runs than what the numbers show at this time. However, with his top five run at Sonoma Raceway, a top 10 at Daytona, then another top five at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Leavine Family Racing team has found their stride and the chemistry to run more consistent.
Even more so, Matt DiBenedetto feels confident at the “driver’s” tracks. Sonoma, a very technical and slow road course, was a perfect example of that as he drove through the field in the closing laps to finish fourth.
“I’ve had this one circled,” DiBenedetto shared after his finish at Sonoma. “Places like Bristol, Phoenix, here. I’ll be honest, this year has been tough because the rules are so different where it makes it a little tougher for the driver to make a difference at some of these bigger race tracks. It’s a lot of car speed and track position, so it’s been tough and mentally challenging.
“So these places where you can just get on the wheel and show the strength of your team and how we can execute, those are the ones we circled off. I was so glad, I knew we could get a good run here.”
There are a couple of these types of tracks coming up. Watkins Glen is another road course on the schedule for DiBenedetto to showcase his right-hand turns. Bristol is where he finished sixth in 2016 back with BK Racing. Then Darlington is a race where some drivers can show their strength of being able to wheel a car at high speeds on a very unforgiving race track. Don’t put it past the No. 95 team to sneak in a potential victory and spoil the party for those higher in the standings.
Six completely different tracks mean we’re going to see two different races each weekend. My hope is that NBC, MRN and PRN can highlight this race within the race to let fans see exactly what I’m talking about. We may even see some desperate moves made by some drivers to get that extra point securing their spot and knocking out another. The Tricky Triangle is up first.