Column: As NASCAR’s Playoffs Loom, It’s “Go Time” For Bubble Drivers

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Not too surprisingly, as NASCAR heads into the final contests to set the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, the races have been high on drama – both on the track and for the championship implications. Weekly shake-ups in the standings are becoming the norm, and that most favored of old sports clichés, “one race at a time,’’ may actually have found its legitimacy as drivers close out the regular season.

In the past four weeks, three drivers – Alex Bowman (Chicago), Kurt Busch (Kentucky), and this past weekend’s winner Kevin Harvick (New Hampshire), have solidified their place in the championship hunt by securing their first wins of the season and locking in a spot in the Playoffs.

With six races remaining to formally set the 16-driver championship field, race trophies and top-10 days are must-haves. And while Harvick hoisted his first trophy of the year Sunday, a handful of other Playoff candidates saw their path to a championship take a detour and are hopeful Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will help right the ship.

For some, such as Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones (now 14th in points) and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman (15th), New Hampshire was an upward swing in the rankings – especially combined with tough luck days for their immediate Playoff competition such as Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer and Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson.

After contact with Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer rallied to a 20th place finish in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Sunday – good enough to give him 16th place in the points standings – the final Playoff transfer spot – by 17 points over Johnson, who finished 30th at New Hampshire after having mechanical issues.

“Well, it was certainly a letdown to say the least,’’ Johnson told reporters following Sunday’s race.

“Certainly, the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck,’’ he continued. “It looked like the guys I’m worried in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.

Make no mistake, however. The seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Johnson knows it’s “go time.”

“We’ve been trying all year,’’ he said. “It’s not like we can magically flip a switch and all of a sudden have more. We’ve been able to run in the top-five and we need to get back to doing that. That’s really what it boils down to.’’

Perhaps Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team can take some solace in the remaining regular season schedule.

Johnson has won at five of the six venues remaining in the regular season – this week’s Pocono Raceway stop, Michigan, Bristol, Darlington, and Indianapolis. In fact, Johnson has won multiple times at four of the five tracks, including four times at Indy and three times each at Pocono and Darlington. The lone place Johnson hasn’t won is the Watkins Glen road course, where the series races in two weeks.

Newman is next best in victories at the upcoming tracks among Playoff hopefuls. He’s won at three of the six, including from the pole position at Pocono (2003), twice at Michigan (2003, 04) and from the pole position at Indianapolis (2013).

Certainly Newman’s recent work combined with his confidence at the next few tracks puts him in a good place down the stretch.

“We’re just out there doing the best that we can and I don’t think of it as dire,’’ Newman said. “I think of it as opportunity. We keep gaining. We’ve got a string of top-10s going here that we need to keep going and look forward to these next few races.’’

It’s certainly enviable momentum and something Kyle Larson, currently 13th in the points, would like to recapture as well. And he’s heading to tracks where that could be the case. Larson has earned three of his five career Cup wins at Michigan. Fellow Playoff bubble driver Bowyer also has a win at one of the final regular season stops – Michigan in 2018.

While Jones has not won at one of the next six tracks, he has come close – finishing in the top five at all six. He has three top-five finishes at this week’s Pocono venue, including a third place earlier this season.

And although Daniel Suarez (18th in points) is the only driver among the Playoff contenders who hasn’t won a Monster Energy Series race yet, he has earned four of his career six top-five finishes at the next three tracks. He won the pole position and finished at career best runner-up at Pocono last summer. He has a pair of top-five finishes at Watkins Glen, including a third place in 2017 that was his first career top-five. And he was fourth at Michigan earlier this year.

But no matter their history at these tracks, these drivers on the Playoff bubble know they can forget about points if they replicate the feats of Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick in recent weeks – and win to get in.

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