Clock is ticking for drivers on the Playoff bubble

LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA - JULY 27: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, climbs into his car during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 27, 2019 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson has done a lot of winning in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup career – hoisted 83 race trophies, earned an all-time record tying seven titles including an unprecedented five consecutively and he’s won at 32 venues on the 36-race schedule. The NASCAR Hall of Fame certainly has reserved space.

But this week, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team find themselves in new competitive territory. The champ is 12 points out of the current 16-driver Playoff field and for the first time in his 18-year fulltime career, he will have a new crew chief taking the reins in the middle of a season – in the midst of a run for Playoff eligibility.

And yet for all the challenges he faces, Johnson remains confident of his chances as he heads to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The change-up in personnel and the ramp up in intensity may be the catalyst Johnson needs to reassume his perennial place among the title favorites.

But he needs to get there quickly. Only five races remain to set the 16-driver Playoff field.

“Our focus and number one priority right now is to make the Playoffs,” Johnson said. “Our road course game has been pretty good the past few outings and with stage racing it adds a huge element of strategy, so we will be looking at this weekend from a lot of different angles.

“Every point, every lap counts from now until the end of the regular season. We are looking at everything. I have a lot of faith in (new crew chief) Cliff (Daniels) and in the No. 48 team, so I know we can do this, we just need to execute.”

It’s a similar sentiment for Johnson’s closest competitors. The two drivers immediately in front of him – veterans Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer are tied in the standings with a 12-point edge over Johnson. And the driver directly behind Johnson in the standings – third-year Cup racer Daniel Suarez, is only 19 points in the rear.

While none of this foursome – Johnson, Newman, Bowyer or Suarez – has ever won a Cup race at The Glen, the 27-year old Suarez earned two of his six career top-five finishes in his previous starts there. In fact, the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford earned his very first top-five (third place) in his 2017 Watkins Glen debut. And he’s led 14 laps in only two races.

On the 2019 season, Suarez is on pace to have his best statistical year. He’s already earned seven top-10s through 21 races. His previous best season mark is nine top-10s. And he’s optimistic that as with last year’s winner Chase Elliott, The Glen could well be where he earns his very first Cup race.

The historic 2.45-mile Watkins Glen road course is one of only four Cup venues where Johnson has not won a race, and his 18 laps led there is the fewest for him among those venues. The only exception is Charlotte’s new ROVAL, which has hosted only one previous Cup race. He has eight top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen including a best of third place in 2012. He was 30th last year.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team is the all-time winningest organization on road courses with 16 victories and Johnson’s teammate Elliott, the defending Watkins Glen race winner.

As for the drivers Johnson needs to catch – Roush-Fenway Racing’s Newman has an Xfinity Series win (2005) at Watkins Glen, but his last top-10 in a Cup race at the road course – an eighth-place finish – came in 2006. He was 19th last year.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Bowyer has a Cup road course win at Sonoma, Calif. (2012), but has only five top-10 finishes in 13 Watkins Glen starts – two in the last four years. Bowyer’s best showing at The Glen is fourth in 2012. He was 11th last year.

Importantly, however, since taking over the No. 14 SHR Ford for retired Cup champion Tony Stewart in 2017, Bowyer boasts the best average road course record in the series among those drivers who have competed at each. He has finished top-five in four of the six races since 2017 – and no worse than 11th – earning a series best average finish of 5.8 during that time frame.

His SHR teammate Daniel Suarez is ranked 10th on that list – the only other among this Playoff chasing foursome in the top-10.

“That’s pretty cool and shows the quality of the Fords SHR has been building for us,” Bowyer said. “When we go to road courses, we expect to be at the top of the chart each time.”

Only this weekend in particular, it’s never been more important. The stakes and emotions are at a season-high as time is running short for the drivers near the Playoff cutoff.

Comments