Two races remain to set the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 16-driver Playoff field and the competition has not only been lively but unpredictable among the four drivers vying for the final two Playoff positions.
An eighth-place finish by Daniel Suarez at Bristol Motor Speedway in the series’ last race was good enough to move the Stewart-Haas Racing driver into the Playoff Top-16 for the first time in eight races (since Chicagoland Speedway) and jumble the postseason outlook for the fourth consecutive week.
Heading into Darlington this weekend, veteran Ryan Newman sits 15th in the standings with a 12-point edge over Suarez in 16th. Suarez’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer dropped a position and is now ranked 17th – 14 points back on Newman and two points behind Suarez.
And seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who suffered a frustrating 19th-place run at Bristol, is now 26 points behind Suarez for that last Playoff eligible points position.
Of the two tracks left to set the Playoff field – Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and then the regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week – Johnson is the only driver among these four with wins at both venues.
Johnson is a three-time Darlington winner – having swept the 2004 season – and scoring his most recent victory in 2011.The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is a four-time winner at Indianapolis – most in the field and second-most all-time next to his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, five-time Indianapolis winner Jeff Gordon.
Veteran Ryan Newman is the only other driver among these four with a win at either Darlington or Indianapolis. He won at Indianapolis from the pole position in 2013 and the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has top-10 finishes in his last two Indianapolis starts.
Historically speaking, Newman counts Darlington as one of his better tracks as well. Although he doesn’t have a win to his credit, he does have a series-best 13 top-10 finishes along with seven top fives in 20 starts.
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Suarez and Bowyer will both be looking to turn their fortune at Darlington. Suarez, the driver of the No. 41 SHR Ford, has finished 38th and 29th in his only two Darlington starts.
Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 SHR Ford, has only one top-10 finish in 13 starts at the track. He finished 36th last year after being involved in a crash and was 40th the year before after an early race engine problem. His only top 10 (seventh) came in his second Darlington start in 2007.
Indianapolis has been a better venue for both Suarez and Bowyer. Suarez has finishes of seventh and 18th in his two starts on the historic 2.5-miler. Bowyer has four top 10s in 13 starts and three of them are top five efforts, including a fifth-place finish last year when he led 37 laps.
“We know how important these next two races are,’’ Bowyer said. “Everyone in the sport knows and everyone will be watching. We know if we run like we are capable of running, we will be fine. Now we just have to go out and do it this weekend at Darlington and next weekend at Indianapolis.’’