Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – Daniel Suarez made a move toward the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a strong eighth-place run in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he gained the most ground with a strategic move near the halfway point in the race.
Suarez stayed on the track under caution for teammate Clint Bowyer’s spin on Lap 242 of 500 and finished second in a two-lap shootout to end the race’s second stage. That move was worth nine stage points to Suarez, who moved two points past Bowyer in the race for the final Playoff spot—even though Bowyer recovered to run seventh at finish.
“I feel like that was probably the biggest thing of the day,” Suarez said. “I feel like that was an amazing call from my crew chief, Billy Scott, and I’m proud of that call. We have to just keep making those decisions.”
Suarez overcame some pit road glitches to finish in the top 10 and has two more races to solidify his position in the Playoffs.
“The racing was fun,” Suarez said. “All in all, it was a pretty solid day for the No. 41 Ford. I feel like we had a top-10 car the entire weekend, and that’s pretty much where we ran. We had some ups and downs on pit road and had some mistakes there, as well as some electrical issues that I feel like we’re lucky we were able to continue to finish the race with the battery.
“But overall I’m proud of my team. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going in the next few weeks.”
JIMMIE JOHNSON LOSES GROUND AS PLAYOFF CUTOFF RACE LOOMS
There’s no mincing words. Jimmie Johnson is in dire peril of missing a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff berth for the first time in his career.
But first things first—before Johnson can think about qualifying for the postseason, his luck has to change.
Though no fault on the driver’s part, Johnson’s no. 48 Chevrolet sustained damaged when Austin Dillon blew a right front tire and hit the outside wall on lap 80. Eventual race winner Denny Hamlin also hit the side of Johnson’s car during the same incident.
Subsequent contact with Paul Menard’s Ford sent Johnson back to pit road for an unscheduled stop, costing him two laps. Ultimately, Johnson came home 19th, four laps off the pace, but it was a hard-fought 19th that could have been worse.
But Johnson finished race 26 points on the wrong side of Playoff eligibility, trailing Daniel Suarez by that number. He’s also 24 points back of Clint Bowyer, who currently holds the 17th spot in the standings.
The early accidents simply deprived Johnson of any chance to make a better run at Bristol.
“After the first incident, it was just too hard to make up ground after that,” Johnson said. “We just had so much damage. To come back 19th is respectable. The other part is that we had to get off strategy because we lost two laps. So the first two-thirds of the race, we were running old tires against the field a lot of the time trying to get laps back. It was just one of those nights.”
“Qualifying (30th) put us in that spot. A better qualifying effort would have had us in a much better position. I wouldn’t have been there when the 3 (Dillon) blew his tire, and life would be totally different.”
CLINT BOWYER RECOVERS FROM SPIN TO STAY CLOSE IN PLAYOFF RACE
Clint Bowyer simply can’t get off the Playoff bubble.
On Lap 242 of Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer tried to make an aggressive pass of the lapped car of Quin Houff and another car to the outside, but the left rear quarter of Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford clipped the nose of Houff’s Chevrolet, and Bowyer went spinning in Turn 2.
Fortunately, Bowyer’s car escaped significant damage, and the Stewart-Haas driver recovered to finish eighth. But Bowyer fell just outside the Playoff cut line when Daniel Suarez scored nine extra points with a strategic move at the end of Stage 2. Bowyer trails his teammate by two points with two races left to determine the Playoff field.
“You’re making split-decisions,” Bowyer said of the spin. “I was trying to pass those two cars and get some more stage points for us, and I clipped him. It wasn’t nothing he did. I was just trying to shoot the gap, and I had a run on those guys and trying to do all I could do.
“We had a good race. We were too loose. I needed more rear grip all night long. That’s probably the loosest I’ve ever been here. We kind of fought front turn all weekend long and was trying to make up for it with wedge out and track bar up – stuff like that – and it just hurts rear grip.
“I mean, all in all, it was a good weekend for us. It was kind of a rebound weekend and what we needed, but you can’t expect those guys to just lay over for you. We did all we could do. I was hoping to be a top-five car and when you’re a top-five car here you’ve got a chance to win, but were just a beat off of that all night.”