Column: Next Ten Races Will Decide Who Makes NASCAR Playoffs

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Martin Truex Jr.’s Sonoma spectacular will honorably earn most of the headlines coming out of the weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ first road course race of the season.

He joins NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon as the only drivers in Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway history to win back-to-back races. And equally as important to the 2017 series champion, the victory was No. 4 on the season tying him with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch for most in the series.

Busch now trails defending series champion Joey Logano by a single point in the championship standings. And while Truex is ranked fifth in points – 100 behind Logano – he would move to second place if the Playoff rankings (based on victories) were reset today.

But it was another group of competitors in Sunday’s field that find themselves immersed in a race-by-race high-stakes battle to stay among the Playoff Top 16 as the series moves to Chicagoland Speedway for this week’s Camping World 400 (Sunday, June 30 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Hendrick Motorsports William Byron, who finished 19th at Sonoma, is currently ranked 14th in the Monster Energy Series driver standings with a 29-point gap over his Hendrick teammate, 17th place Jimmie Johnson, who fell just outside the championship cut-off despite a 12th-place run at Sonoma. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who finished 10th at Sonoma, moved into 15th in the series driver standings and trails Byron by 11 points.

Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman, who finished seventh at Sonoma, moved into the 16th and final Playoff transfer position. He has the slimmest of slim 1-point advantage over Johnson, who was 12th at Sonoma and is 17th in the standings. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who finished eighth on Sunday, is ranked 18th in the series driver standings, only five points behind Newman in the cutoff position with 10 races left to settle the Playoff field.

There has been substantial movement between 15th and 18th place in the standings in just the last seven weeks. Newman, Johnson and Jones, for example, have changed points positions six times in the last seven races. Larson has moved four times.

There are 10 races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field – naturally creating a sort of Playoff “Chase” within the playoff push. And it’s go-time.

Byron, the second-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, scored only a pair of top-10 finishes at the 10 tracks ultimately setting this year’s Playoff field. He was sixth at Pocono and eighth at Watkins Glen in his maiden Cup season (2018). However, he does have a pair of past NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series wins at both Daytona and Indianapolis – important venues in this next 10-race group.

Larson has fared very well at the upcoming venues – scoring 20 of his career 48 top-five finishes at one of these next 10 tracks. And he has a career best three wins at Michigan.

Judging by statistics, Newman should feel very optimistic about this stretch of the schedule too. He certainly was enthused by his work at Sonoma. His seventh-place finish was his best showing since a seventh in 2008 at the famed road course – 11 years ago.

“We had good strategy and good pit stops, good everything,” Newman said. “We just didn’t quite have the speed to be able to get up there and pass those guys that were in front today.”

He’s equally as hopeful about the next summer months – having earned half of his career 18 victory total at tracks in this next 10-race stretch of venues. And the winning has been diverse. He’s won at six of the tracks – three times at New Hampshire, twice at Michigan and once at Daytona, Indianapolis, Chicago and Pocono.

Of course with 83 trophies and seven series championships in his wheelhouse, Johnson cannot be counted out to qualify for the Playoffs either. He is hoping to break a two-year-plus winless streak and surely likes his chances. He’s a former multi-time winner at Daytona, New Hampshire, Pocono, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis. He has a win at Michigan too. This week’s venue in Chicago, plus Kentucky (July 14) and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (Aug. 4) are the only tracks on the entire schedule where he’s yet to celebrate in winner’s circle.

Jones would be understandably enthusiastic about his summer slate. He scored his first career Cup win last July in the Daytona summer night race. And 11 of his career 18 top-five finishes have come at tracks in the calendar’s next 10-race stretch. He was runner-up at Bristol, Tenn. in the summer of 2017, leading 260 laps and he was runner-up at Indianapolis’s Brickyard 400 just last year. His four top-fives this season is already nearly half his career best season total (nine) set last year.

“It was good,” Jones said following his eighth place effort on Sunday at Sonoma. “We passed a lot of cars. I am just happy we were able to come out of here with a solid day.

“Wish we could have gotten some more stage points, but it was nice to get a good finish.”

And, he added. “We just needed track position. I think we were probably a few spots better than that, but it’s still good. It’s nice to get back on track. Hopefully this is good momentum for next week in Chicago.”