While it was a dramatic Bojangles’ Southern 500 on several levels Sunday night – from the challenging weather to the challenging competition on track – the Playoff picture with one race to set the final two positions of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoff field remains as intriguing as it could possibly be.
This year’s Southern 500 got a very late start because of poor weather, but by the time Erik Jones took the checkered flag early Monday morning, the race was every bit the traditional wild card it was expected to be for the four drivers challenging for the final two Playoff berths.
Those drivers – Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman – swapped positions in the standings following Darlington’s checkered flag, but the overall picture essentially remains the same. Only 18 points separate Johnson in 18th place from Suarez in 16th as the series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend’s regular season finale. The top 16 ranked drivers following Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (September 8 at 2 p.m ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be Playoff-eligible.
Despite a discouraging finishing statistic going into the race, Bowyer instead earned the best finish of his career and took stage points to boot. The driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished sixth at Darlington – only his second top-10 result there in 14 starts – and moved into 15th place in the Playoff standings.
Similarly, Suarez, also rallied to the best finish of his career – his first top-20 – and earned stage points in both Stage 1 and Stage 2. The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished 11th and is now tied in points with Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford, who finished 23rd at Darlington – but Suarez holds the tie-breaker and is in the 16th and final position set to transfer into the Playoffs.
Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy Series champion and driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is 18th in the standings, 18 points behind Suarez and Newman and 26 points behind Bowyer. A three-time Darlington winner, Johnson was on pace for a top-five finish only to be collected in a late race wreck. He was second in the opening stage for a dose of bonus points and was running fourth when he was in the accident.
And Newman, who has a solid history at the Darlington track, instead finished outside the top 10 for the first time in three years and is in 17th in the Playoff standings – one spot outside the postseason. He and Suarez had contact mid-race and, judging by the post-race reaction, that may be significant as the two compete at Indy this week – a place where Newman won the 2013 race from the pole position.
Although frustrated after the race, Newman realizes he’s still absolutely within Playoff reach coming to a track where he’s hoisted a trophy before.
“We got spun and we came back and we did not have a top-10 finish, so it’s unfortunate,’’ Newman said of the incident with Suarez. “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.
As for the situation with Suarez, Newman said, “I have to watch the replay. They said he hit me, but I don’t know. He had me jacked up sideways going into the corner, so do I owe him? Probably a little something.’’
Suarez, however, was confident Newman would see things differently once he watched a replay of the incident.
“That’s a racing thing,’’ Suarez said of the incident. “I didn’t touch him. As a driver it’s very very easy to know that the guy behind you is very very close and to feel that air, but he’s experienced to know. Once he sees the race, he’s going to realize that we didn’t touch. It was everything aero and just hard racing, that’s it.’’
Bowyer, meanwhile, was absolutely encouraged by the rally he and his team pulled off this week. He had been ranked as high as 14th seven weeks ago and a season high of eighth in May, so the last few months have been a true test of gumption for him and the team. While he reiterated that he hardly feels “comfortable” heading into the regular season finale, it’s a far better position than it could have been.
“We put ourselves back in [Playoff] position, but kid you not, 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 to race to our capabilities,’’ Bowyer said after the race.
“Tonight 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 you always have to be looking down the road.’’
Looking down the road may be exactly the boost Johnson could use. He is the winningest driver in the field at Indianapolis with four victories (2006, 2008, 2009, 2012). He also has a runner-up (2013) and a third place (2016) finish there.
He certainly did not, however, expect one of his best venues to ultimately be the arbiter of his 2019 Playoff reality. One of only three drivers in history to win seven Cup titles – NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the others – Johnson has never in his illustrious career missed qualifying for the Playoffs.
“I had at least 15 years with a lot of luck of my side, seven years of championships and having two or three bad years is just part of it,’’ Johnson reflected after Darlington. “I keep saying that we’re getting there and tonight we showed it from the way we qualified to how we ran on those stages. I was running fourth when the accident took place in Turn three and I just had nowhere to go.’’
He remains absolutely optimistic however, and with his track record at Indy, how could he not.
“We are running out of days and if we miss it, it’s just going to be by a few (points) I believe,’’ Johnson said. “If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. So it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race at Indy. But it is what it is, and we are going to go there to win a race.’’
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