INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/IMS Radio Network) will mark the 26th and final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. Heading into it, 14 of the 16 spots into the postseason are locked in. With how close the playoff bubble is, we have two spots available among four drivers.
Currently, Clint Bowyer (+8) and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate of Daniel Suarez (+0) hold onto those final two position – but as you can see, Suarez is in a tie for the 16th and final spot with Ryan Newman (-0). These three make the most sense to duke it out.
Jimmie Johnson is within striking distance at -18 but that’s a lot of ground to make up still in one race.
See, stage points are going crucial with this group, which sets the stage for these four to work pit strategy to their advantage. Do you go for a race win or position yourself with stage points? We saw that a few weeks ago in Bristol where despite finishing one spot behind Bowyer in the race itself, Suarez actually scored more overall race points than his teammate and made up a lot of ground in the standings by virtue of that.
These four have to play the stage points game to perfection. An example, if Bowyer elects to go for the win but doesn’t while Johnson scores say 10 stage points, he’s only eight points down heading to the final stage. That means all he has to do is outplace Bowyer by at least eight spots. That certainly doable.
Bowyer, did finish fifth in last year’s race but that’s his only top five at the Brickyard since 2011. Suarez, finished seventh as a rookie in 2017 but 18th last year.
Newman and Johnson could hold the advantages. Newman, has five top 11 finishes in his last six Brickyard’s. Johnson, has four Brickyard 400 wins and was third just two years ago.
Having said all of this, what happens if someone behind them wins?
Paul Menard is too far out to make the playoffs on points but he is a past Brickyard winner. Chris Buescher finished 14th in 2016 and ninth in 2017. He also enters with 14 straight top 20 finishes on the season.
Matt DiBenedetto came away with a top 10 finish a couple of years ago here. Now, he has a much better car.
If I’m a driver who has to win to make the playoffs, I’m not going for stage points but rather using pit strategy to steal a race win instead. Indy is a place that this could happen too.