Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – And so it comes down to this. Four drivers will have one race to settle the final two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff positions at the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard powered by Florida Georgia Line (2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Three veterans and one young newcomer – Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez – will put it all on the line in one of the most demanding events on the schedule to set the 16-driver Playoff field for NASCAR’s postseason battle beginning next week in Las Vegas.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer is in 15th in the series driver standings and holds an eight-point edge over his SHR teammate Daniel Suarez in 16th and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman in 17th, who are tied in points but Suarez currently holds the tiebreaker. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson – whose four wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are most among active drivers – sits in 18th place, 18 points behind Suarez and Newman, 26 points behind Bowyer. The seven-time series champion Johnson has never missed the Playoffs previously.
Here’s a look at their history and their expectations this weekend at Indianapolis:
*The 40-year old Clint Bowyer is racing for his Playoff livelihood. And he’s answered the call with back-to-back top-10s in the last two races – seventh at Bristol, Tenn. and sixth at Darlington, S.C. – to regain a position in the Top 16 of the Monster Energy Series driver standings. He has only an eight-point cushion over his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Daniel Suarez in 16th and Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman in 17th and he holds a 26-point edge over 18th place Jimmie Johnson. Bowyer has four top-10 finishes at Indianapolis, including a fifth-place finish last year when he led 37 laps. His best effort at Indianapolis was fourth – in 2006 and 2010.
*Daniel Suarez, 27, has made dramatic gains in the Playoff hunt and in just the last few weeks put himself in position to make his first postseason run. He shows up at Indianapolis having earned two top-10 finishes in the season’s last three races – totaling nine on the year. His best showing of the season in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was a third-place finish at Texas in the Spring. In two starts at this weekend’s Indianapolis venue, Suarez has finishes of seventh and 18th. He’s yet to lead a lap at Indianapolis but he has completed every lap of competition.
*Ryan Newman, who drives the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, won the 2013 Brickyard 400 from the pole position and has scored top-10 finishes in his last two races at the speedway. He has five top-10 finishes in 18 starts there and led 59 laps. He’s finished 11th or better in six of the last seven races. On the season, Newman has eight top-10 finishes including a best of fifth place at the Daytona summer race. He is attempting to make his first Playoff run since 2017.
*Jimmie Johnson is looking to continue an amazing streak of making every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff since its inception in 2004 – although he faces a deep challenge this week needing to win or make up 26 points on Bowyer or 18 points on Suarez and Newman. But when it comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nobody in Sunday’s field has been more successful. He won four times between 2006-12, was runner-up in 2013 and finished third in 2016 – seven top-10 finishes in all. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will need to end a stretch of seven tough races. His best finish in the last two months is 15th at Pocono-2. He has eight top-10 finishes on the season including a best of third place at the Daytona summer race.
“We have a great thing going right now on our team – everyone is pulling in the right direction,” Johnson said this week. “There is some pressure to go out and win this weekend, but that is what we do every weekend. We go to a track with the intention to contend for wins.
“If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave a way a few points. It’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy, but that is where we are right now. It’s a great track to win at. We know what we have to do this weekend.”
XFINITY TAKES ON INDIANAPOLIS
Only two more races remain to set the NASCAR Xfinity Series 12-driver Playoff field, and Saturday’s Indiana 250 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could deliver major title implications.
The Xfinity Big 3 as the championship leaders have become known, added to their resume last week at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway with Cole Custer being awarded his sixth victory of the season after race winner Denny Hamlin’s car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver, Custer, sits third in the championship with six wins. Christopher Bell, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, is second in the standings also with six wins. And defending series champion Tyler Reddick holds a 51-point advantage atop the standings with four wins himself. Should the Richard Childress Racing’s Reddick earn enough points to take a 61-point edge over the field after Indianapolis, he would officially win the regular season championship.
These three drivers – Reddick, Bell and Custer – have accounted for a stunning 75 percent of the wins this season. However, none of them have won at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The driver just behind them in points – veteran Justin Allgaier – is the defending race winner and joins three-time race winner Kyle Busch as the only former winners in this week’s field.
Allgaier has already secured a position in the Playoffs by his points standings, joining race winners Austin Cindric (two wins), Chase Briscoe (one win), Michael Annett (one win) and series rookie Noah Gragson, who point-ed his way in after the Darlington race.
Among those who could secure a Playoff spot this week – depending on several factors – are Justin Haley, rookie John Hunter Nemechek and Brandon Jones. Of course a first-time winner from among the series regulars has a Playoff spot waiting as well.
Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon will be the only two Monster Energy Series regulars on the Indianapolis grid on Saturday.