Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – A former multi-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch is well-experienced in hoisting trophies at the famed short track, but Saturday’s victory there is his first win this season – and first since his 2017 Daytona 500 win. Now three times in the last seven races, “new” winners have assured themselves Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff berths – from Busch to career first-time winners Erik Jones in the Daytona night race and Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Even as the series takes its final off-week of the 2018 season, the last two months of race results have created a lot of anticipation for the final two regular season races at a pair of the sport’s most historic venues in Darlington, S.C. and Indianapolis.
There will be 16 drivers– including all race winners – contending for the title in the Playoffs when the series arrives in Las Vegas for the Sept. 16 opener of the 10-race postseason.
Of the drivers currently eligible to be included in the battle for the Monster Energy Cup trophy, seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman sit in the most vulnerable positions in the standings – winless and ranked in 15th and 16th place on the Playoff standings, respectively.
Bowman, in his first full season driving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, hasn’t raced at either Darlington or Indianapolis since 2015. He finished 29th (2014) and 24th (2015) in two starts at Darlington for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. He finished 40th and 42nd in the two Indianapolis races those years.
So it is a little difficult to gauge how effective he will be starting a Monster Energy Series race at two of the most challenging circuits for the first-time in three years. He does bring some good momentum, however, with two top-10 finishes in the last four races, including a career-best third place at Pocono and an eighth place at Bristol on Saturday night.
There is good reason for Johnson to feel the most optimistic among the drivers vying for a Playoff position who are still winless on the season. Johnson has three wins at Darlington – including a sweep of the 2004 season (when the series raced there twice annually) and again in 2012. He is looking for his first top 10 there, however, since 2014.
The famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been one of Johnson’s best tracks as well. He has four wins there – only 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Gordon (five) has more – and he won there three times in a span of four years (2006, 2008 and 2009). His last win was in 2012, but he was runner-up in 2013 and third in 2016. As with his teammate, he is also coming off a top-10 at Bristol (10th).
Should a driver win at Darlington or Indianapolis who isn’t currently among the Playoff 16 – he would automatically leapfrog those without a win, possibly leaving Bowman and Johnson on the outside. They have a good point advantage on the field – Johnson is +111 points and Bowman is +79 points on 17th place – but should someone ranked lower than them win, the game changes significantly.
The question is how likely is it a driver currently outside the top-16 will win at either of arguably the two most notoriously difficult tracks on the schedule?
The last four winners at Darlington include Kevin Harvick (2014), Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).
And the track nicknamed “Too Tough to Tame” has been just that for the drivers looking to leapfrog and win their way into the Playoffs.
Roush-Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Bristol runner-up, probably had Saturday’s night race circled on his calendar, but instead finished a disappointing 24th. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the Charlotte night race, 12 races ago.
Neither he nor two of the other drivers considered possibilities to take a clutch Victory Lane path into the postseason – Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard or Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez – have never scored a top-10 at Darlington.
Ryan Newman, who is a legitimate possibility to score a victory at Indianapolis, is also a reasonable bet at Darlington. The Richard Childress Racing driver has four top-10 finishes in the last five races there, including seventh place last year.
At Indianapolis, Newman and Menard are the only drivers immediately below the current Playoff cutoff line with wins. Newman won there from the Busch Pole position in 2013 and has finished in the top 11 in three of the last four years. He was third last year. In fact, since 2011, he hasn’t finished worse than seventh but one time – and that was because he was collected in a crash.
Menard is equally optimistic about his shot at Indy. He scored his only career Monster Energy Series win there in 2011. However, of his 22 total laps led at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – 21 of them came in his win.
Suarez finished seventh in his only start at Indy last year. Stenhouse is still looking for his first top 10. In five starts, his best effort was 12th in 2016. He crashed out last year and finished 35th.
“I think we’re all looking forward to the off weekend so we can recharge and get ready for Darlington,” Newman said. “It’s my favorite race on the Cup schedule and I want to win it for so many reasons. We’ve got to win to get into the Playoffs.”
And he’s not alone.