Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – The best kind of Darlington (S.C.) Raceway throwback weekend for Jimmie Johnson would include a victory and his ticket to the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Johnson’s three victories at the notoriously tough 1.366-mile track is most among active drivers who will compete in Sunday evening’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as are his nine top-five finishes.
But among the four drivers closest to earning the final two Playoff positions, the seven-time series champion has the highest mountain to climb – he sits farthest back in the standings. His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be outfitted in a throwback version to his former off-road racing truck, however. And that won’t hurt the motivational mountain he must conquer.
With only two races left to set the 16-driver Playoff field – Darlington and next week’s regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Johnson is ranked 18th in the standings, 28 points behind third-year Cup driver Daniel Suarez, who currently holds that all-important 16th position.
Veteran Ryan Newman is ranked 15th with a 12-point edge on 16th place Suarez. Clint Bowyer is 17th, two points behind Suarez and 26 points up on Johnson. Among these four, Johnson is the only to have won previously at Darlington.
The month of September has been particularly rewarding for Johnson who has earned 10 of his 83 career victories in the month – second only to October, when he has 14 wins.
“Darlington just has its own persona,” Johnson said. “The Southern 500 has always been a spectacle to see. The track is so difficult and gritty to drive, it can tear you up pretty easy. It’s a long night and usually a hot one.
“The throwback theme is a great tribute to the personality and characteristics of Darlington, paying respect to the past. It’s always so much fun walking down pit road before the race. So many have just embraced the concept and go all-in.
“We know what we have to do and I am excited about the direction we have taken as a team.”
Johnson will be looking for his first top-10 since a third place in the Daytona International Speedway July race. His position in the standings is the lowest since mid-March, but Johnson has reason to feel confident at both Darlington and Indianapolis – two venues where he leads the field in victories. He’s never missed a Playoff berth in his 18-year fulltime career.
Suarez, who surpassed both his SHR teammate Clint Bowyer and Johnson last week in the standings, has an iffy track record at Darlington with finishes of 38th and 29th. Bowyer has only one top-10 finish in 13 starts – both he and Johnson retired early from last year’s race. Newman’s 10th place was best among this foursome in 2018.
THREE TO GO FOR XFINITY
With only three races remaining to set the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff field, Saturday’s Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200 (4 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a great opportunity and an equally great challenge for the group of drivers still on the postseason brink.
And if that innate excitement weren’t enough, some of NASCAR’s biggest names will be joining the race field this week, including longtime Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr, who is making only his second NASCAR national series start since retiring from fulltime competition in 2017. And it comes only two weeks after he and his family survived a plane accident near Bristol, Tenn.
Now an NBC television analyst, Earnhardt had a pair of top-10s in four previous Xfinity Series starts at Darlington. His best career finish in this race was runner-up in 1998.
“The Xfinity Series has been competitive this year with the young talent that is in the series right now,” Earnhardt said. “We’ll see how things go during practice and hope to be running with those guys on Saturday.”
Five-time race winner Denny Hamlin (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) and Ryan Blaney (No. 12 Team Penske Ford) are the other Cup regulars entered this week and join Earnhardt on the grid for this race – one of the most highly anticipated of the season.
Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick – a four-race winner this year and the defending series champion – arrives in Darlington with a 45-point edge on Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell. The two drivers have only three starts between them at Darlington. Reddick finished third last year and Bell qualified on the outside pole position, but crashed and finished 34th. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer remains third in the standings with five victories – completing a triad of domination this season between the championship leaders.
Bell, who earned his first win on a road course at Road America last week, has a series-best six wins on the season. His latest triumph put him in elite company – tying him with Sam Ard for the most wins for a driver in his first 64 series starts. Bell has 15 top-five and 16 top-10s in 23 races so far and his 13 stage wins are most in the field.
This triumphant trio has set a high bar for sure. And while seven drivers have already clinched a spot in the 12-driver Playoff field, there is a lot of competition for the remaining five positions. Only JR Motorsport’s Noah Gragson and Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley can possibly clinch a postseason position this week on points.
Among those still vying for a Playoff spot are rookie John Hunter Nemechek, who along with Gray Gaulding, and Haley will be making their Xfinity Series debut at Darlington.