Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BROOKLYN, MI – On the surface it seems like a simple formula. Win a race and you’re in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs. And the three competitors closest to the 16-driver Playoff cutoff mark would insist that’s been their plan all year. Planning and executing are two different things, however.
All three of those drivers on the verge of Playoff standing – Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman – have won before at this week’s venue, Michigan International Speedway. With only four races remaining before the Playoffs begin, victory has never been more crucial and race management top priority.
Raising a trophy following Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) would not only be a saving grace but a huge motivator going forward for these three drivers in particular, with the 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs beginning Sept. 15 in Las Vegas.
Bowyer, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford visited Michigan’s Victory Lane most recently among the three – winning the rain-shortened 2018 early summer race. Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won there in 2014. And Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Ford, won back-to-back in 2003-04.
Bowyer is ranked 15th and holds a 12-point edge over Johnson and Newman, who are tied in the standings. Johnson is in the 16th – and final Playoff position – because he has posted the highest finish between himself and Newman.
At the series’ first Michigan race in June, Newman posted the best finish (eighth) among the three drivers. Bowyer has the most recent win and the seven-time Cup champion Johnson has led the most laps (700) in the field.
Bowyer brings some positive momentum to the Michigan weekend with a sixth-place finish at Kentucky and an 11th-place finish at Pocono prior to his frustrating 20th place showing at The Glen on Sunday.
Johnson picked up some important stage points last week at Watkins Glen before being spun out late in the race and settling for a 20th-place finish. He earned top-fives at Chicago (fourth) and Daytona (fifth) in July, but hasn’t had a top-10 in the four races since.
Newman is coming off his worst finish of the season – 25th at Watkins Glen. He has three top 10 efforts in the last five races, however, including a best of fifth at Daytona in July. The two-time Michigan winner has a pair of top-10 finishes in the last four races at the track and a fourth place in this race in 2017 is his best result since his 2004 win.
“There’s pressure in everything you do in this sport and that’s kind of the way we like it,” Bowyer said. “That’s what makes it fun. We are getting to the point in the season when the pay window is starting to open and it’s go-time. That’s when it’s fun for the drivers, teams and especially the fans. As the tension goes up, the sport gets more and more interesting.”
MID-OHIO IS THE NEXT STOP FOR XFINITY
The always-anticipated road course portion of the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule continues this week with Saturday’s B&L Transport 170 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Austin Cindric earned his career first Xfinity Series victory last week at the iconic Watkins Glen International road course and shows up in Ohio an absolute favorite as well. He won the pole position last year at Mid-Ohio and led a race best 59 laps only to finish second to series veteran Justin Allgaier.
Allgaier proved himself the 2018 road course ace earning wins in two of the four events – answering his Mid-Ohio win with another at the next stop in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. He leads the series championship contenders with three career road course wins and could use another to secure his position in the 2019 Playoff field.
The JR Motorsports driver Allgaier is one of only two drivers ranked in the top-eight without a victory and that’s largely because the top-three in the standings have absolutely dominated the win column. Championship leader and defending series champ Tyler Reddick has three wins. Christopher Bell and Cole Custer have five victories each. Allgaier is ranked fourth just behind these multi-time winners.
Allgaier’s experience plus the fact that no member of that championship leading group of three has won on an Xfinity Series road course previously, certainly makes him a favorite heading into the weekend. He has a win, two top-fives and three top-10s in four Mid-Ohio starts.
Counting the last five road course events for the series, Allgaier has a pair of wins, four top-fives and is averaging a 4.6 finish in the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet.
Some of his fiercest competition this weekend may actually come from within the JR Motorsports group. Xfinity rookie Noah Gragson won a NASCAR K&N Series race on the Sonoma, Calif. road course earlier this summer. He was ninth in his Xfinity road course race last week at Watkins Glen and was a perfect 2-for-2 in top-10s in his two Gander Outdoors Truck Series road course events.
The 21-year old driver of the No. 9 JRM Chevrolet has four wins in 10 road course races in the combined NASCAR K&N East and West series – five top-fives and seven top-10s.
“I really feel like this time of year is where we can really make move because of how comfortable I feel on road courses,” said Gragson, who is ranked seventh in the championship standings.
“We were able to come away with a good run despite some adversity last week in Watkins Glen and I am really confident that we can have an even better run in Mid-Ohio, despite having never been there before. It’ll be an interesting weekend for sure and I’m ready to get it going.”
GANDER TRUCKS TO CROWN REGULAR SEASON CHAMP
A dramatic and action-filled NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series regular season culminates this weekend in the Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan International Speedway (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The series will crown its regular season champion and the eight-driver championship Playoff field will be set. For all intents and purposes there still remains one Playoff position to finalize.
Stewart Friesen’s career first victory last week on the Eldora Speedway dirt track secured his Playoff position. He joins a list of race winners that include defending series champion Brett Moffitt, a two-time winner as well as first-time championship contender, Ross Chastain, who has three victories. Daytona winner Austin Hill and Kentucky race winner Tyler Ankrum will also be making their Playoff debut. And two-time series champion Johnny Sauter rounds out the list of 2019 race winners.
Moffitt, driver of the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet is the defending Michigan race winner. In three starts there, he has two wins. He won the 2016 race leading only the last lap. He led five laps in the race last year, however took the victory on a last lap pass on Johnny Sauter.
Grant Enfinger has topped the championship standings for the last nine weeks and never been ranked less than second place. Although he hasn’t won a race this year, he has mathematically secured the championship triumph to move into the Playoffs with a 15-point Playoff point bonus for his season topping work.
Matt Crafton, a former two-time series champion, is ranked second to Enfinger in the championship, but is also winless on the season. Should a new winner – other than Crafton – take the checkered at Michigan, Crafton would be eliminated from Playoff contention.
Crafton has the most starts at Michigan among those vying for the last Playoff position. The driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Ford has eight top-10 finishes in 17 starts, including a best showing of runner-up in 2014. He has top-10 finishes in the last five races and led laps in the last three races.
There remains, however, a substantial and substantially talented group of young drivers still hoping to win their way into the Playoffs this weekend. Ben Rhodes, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland and Sheldon Creed are all ranked among the top-eight in the championship standings but without a Playoff-qualifying win yet.
Rhodes, 22, is ranked ninth – 63 points behind Crafton in the standings. The driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford has a pair of top-10 finishes in three Michigan starts.
Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are ranked sixth and seventh in the championship. Burton, 18, will be making his Michigan debut in the No. 18 KBM Toyota. Gilliland, 19, started on the outside pole last year in his only Gander Trucks start at Michigan and finished fifth. He has five top 10s in the season’s last six races in the No. 4 KBM Toyota.
Creed, 21, is ranked eighth in the championship but still in need of a victory to break into the Playoff mix. The driver of the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet finished runner-up last week at Eldora Speedway – his best finish of the season – and this will be his Michigan debut in the truck.