INDIANAPOLIS – In two months, we will be headline four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers in their pursuit for the championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Every word, every thought, everything about the week leading up to the season finale will center around the four Championship 4 drivers vying for the title.
Well, this week is a bit different. This week we set the playoff field to see who over the next 10 weeks will not only make the playoffs but make it to the final round too.
Right now, 14 drivers are locked in. We still have two spots and four realistic drivers for them. Clint Bowyer (+8), Daniel Suarez (+0), Ryan Newman (-0) and Jimmie Johnson (-18) are fighting for the final two spots into the postseason. So long as no one in the standings behind them win Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/IMS Radio Network) then we know two of them will be safe.
Jimmie Johnson brings his No. 48 Chevrolet into his garage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday afternoon
That’s why this week is a lot like the Championship 4 for these drivers.
“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Daniel Suarez said of his 2016 XFINITY Series championship in Miami. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”
Suarez, says that despite his limited experience being in NASCAR, the 2016 win or go home situation that he had for a title is all he has to base this off of. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three straight top 11 finishes and if he can replicate that on Sunday, he may be safe.
What about the guy he’s tied with? Ryan Newman has been in the playoffs before. He made it to the Championship 4 a s a winless driver in 2014, his first with Richard Childress Racing. Now, he’s a first year driver with Roush/Fenway Racing, a team that hasn’t won in over two years. He himself hasn’t won in over two years as well. But, here he is with a realistic shot of making it though.
Newman, compares his team to a team like he had in his rookie season. They’re all new with one another. They haven’t had much success in the last few years and now they’re in position to make the playoffs.
But, Newman isn’t getting too high on that. He says Indy is no different than the first race of the season.
“To me, this is no different than when the green flag dropped for the Daytona 500,” Newman said. “You have just as many opportunities and points to gain as you do to lose and it is the same for everybody. You can’t try to make up for in one race what you didn’t accomplish in the first 25.”
For Jimmie Johnson, he has to be the favorite among these four to win outright despite riding an 84 race winless streak. Johnson, is a four time Brickyard 400 champion himself and is one win shy of tying his old teammate Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ever. With how his last two seasons have gone mixed with a new crew chief and a win or go home situation, a victory on Sunday would be “a hell of a story” says Johnson.
“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”
Finally, it’s Bowyer who’s trying to hold them all off. Bowyer, said that last weeks finish at Darlington showed the speed that was in his car. While he only has 11 top 10 finishes this season, five of which being in the top five, he’s feeling good about his chances.
Bowyer, says his car is a top 10 car on a week in basis. It’s just sometimes unfortunate things take them out.
“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said on Saturday. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”