After the final off week of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the stars of NASCAR are back in action this weekend in one of the biggest races of the year – the Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The annual stop at the Darlington Raceway is always a highly anticipated event, especially since it moved back to Labor Day weekend.
It’s looked this way for a while now but with two races remaining in the regular season, baring a fluke unforeseen race winner at Darlington and/or Indy, the final two spots in the Cup Series playoffs are going to be a fight between four drivers.
Right now, Ryan Newman (+14) and Daniel Suarez (+2) are on the good side of the cutoff line. Clint Bowyer (-2) and Jimmie Johnson (-26) are on the bad side. All four have struggled at Darlington lately too but Johnson and Suarez will start fifth and sixth respectively on Sunday.
Bowyer, has never finished in the top five there and has just one career top 10 on the South Carolina race track. His last four finishes are – 17th, 22nd, 40th and 36th respectively. On the season, Bowyer’s last 10 finishes are – 35th, 11th, 37th, 34th, 6th, 20th, 11th, 20th, 37th and seventh respectively. That’s four finishes outside of the top 30 and six outside of the top 20. He went from +73 in the points after Kansas to -2 in the standings leaving Bristol.
Johnson has struggled as of late too. His last four finishes in Darlington are 19th, 33rd, 12th and 39th respectively. His last six on the season are 30th, 30th, 15th, 19th, 34th and 21st respectively.
Suarez, has finishes of 38th and 29th in two career starts. He also has just two top five finishes since June and has finished 17th or worse in six of his last nine starts on the season.
Newman though has four top 10 finishes in his last six tries and only two finishes outside of 13th since 2009. He has seven top 12 finishes in the last nine races of the season. Johnson and Bowyer have just five combined.
Stage Points Are Key
Two weekends ago in Bristol, Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer showed just how crucial stage points are. The final box score of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway shows that Bowyer finished one spot ahead of Suarez. Bowyer, was credited with a seventh place finish while Suarez was eighth.
But, the points standings though show Suarez ahead of Bowyer now. That’s all because of the decision by Suarez’ crew chief to keep him out at the end of the second stage to score points.
See, Bowyer finished 10th in Stage 1 while Suarez was 13th. That’s a one point advantage to Bowyer. With a finish ahead of him in the end, that’s a two point advantage. So, how is Suarez up by two leaving Bristol?
It comes down to that decision.
Suarez, didn’t pit when a majority of the leaders did. He stayed out and finished second. That netted him nine points. Bowyer, spun on Lap 242 to bring out the caution just before that stage break. He would finish 15th as a result of that.
Suarez having nine points to Bowyer’s none in that stage was a gain of +8 in terms of stage points on Saturday night. Throw in the finish, and it’s a +7 gain at Bristol for Suarez over Bowyer.
That’s why Suarez is now ahead of him with only two races remaining in the regular season. Stage points will be key from here on out.
Busch vs. Logano For Regular Season Championship
Between them, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are in a battle for the No. 1 seed into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The reason for that is, you get 15 additional playoff points for being the regular season champion. Those are very valuable to use. Plus, the last two regular season champions in this new format made it all the way to the Championship 4 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway too.
Currently, Busch leads Logano by 309 points with only two races remaining. So, these two obviously want to win Sunday night’s Southern 500 but they also need to grab stage points as well.
Busch, has been stellar at Darlington in his career with a top 11 finish in each of the last nine years there. Six of his last seven have been seventh or better at that.
Logano, was runner-up last year as he has three top five finishes in his last four tries too. Which one comes out on top on Sunday night?
They both are struggling right now and need to get going.
JGR And Penske Teams To Beat For Southern 500
The top two teams to beat for Sunday’s Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway has to be Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing. Combined, if you count Furniture Row Racing in with JGR, then they’ve won the prestigious race in four straight years and five of the last six and eight of the last 10.
Denny Hamlin has to be among the favorites to beat with scoring six top five finishes in his last six starts on the season and scoring eight top 10 finishes in his last nine Darlington starts including six of those being in the top four.
Martin Truex Jr. won this race in 2016 and has four consecutive top 11 finishes at the Lady in Black. On the season, he has four top six finishes in his last five tries too.
Erik Jones was fifth in this race in 2017 and eighth last year. Other than running out of fuel late in Michigan, he’s been a top eight machine since June. He too will be a factor to win.
So will Kyle Busch. He’s been stellar at Darlington in his career with a top 11 finish in each of the last nine years there. Six of his last seven have been seventh or better at that.
What about Penske? They went 1-2 last year with Brad Keselowski earning his first career Southern 500 victory. He has three top 10 finishes in his last four starts including two of those being in the top two. He also has three top 10 finishes in his last five starts on the season as well.
Logano, was runner-up last year as he has three top five finishes in his last four tries too.
Ryan Blaney is the only one of these seven who may struggle. He hasn’t finished better than 13th in four career Darlington tries.
Chip Ganassi Racing May Shine Too
Chip Ganassi Racing has won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 but never the Southern 500. Maybe they can get the final one off their list on Sunday. Both drivers have been stout this weekend and will share Row 2 at the start of Sunday’s race.
Kyle Larson has been so good at Darlington in the past as he’d due for a win. Despite entering the race on a 70 race winless drought, this is his chance to get back to victory lane.
Larson, has four top 10 finishes in five tries. He led 45 laps in 2016, 124 in 2017 and 284 last year. He also has five top eight finishes in his last six starts on the season in his No. 42 Chevrolet. He was sixth and second in practice on Friday including being quicker on the 10 lap average chart in final practice. He starts third.
His teammate Kurt Busch should be good too. Busch, has three top six finishes in his last four Darlington tries and has shown some improved speed in his No. 1 Chevrolet lately too. He was first and fourth respectively in practice and eighth on the 10 lap average chart as well.
Harvick Has Shined In Darlington, His Teammates Though Haven’t
If not for Kevin Harvick, then Stewart-Haas Racing would have had some down times at the Darlington Raceway. Harvick, has been on fire since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Prior to SHR, he led a combined 63 laps on the 1.33-mile South Carolina oval. But, with SHR, he’s led 518 laps in five tries. In fact, in his last six Darlington starts, Harvick hasn’t finished worse than ninth. He’s been first, first, first, second, ninth and fourth respectively.
But, that’s about it for SHR.
Aric Almirola hasn’t had a top five finish on the season since March 11 in Phoenix and has no top 10 finishes seven career starts on the Lady in Black.
Daniel Suarez’ two finishes are 38th and 29th respectively. Six of his last nine starts on the season have seen him finish 17th or worse. He also has scored just three top five finishes since June and two of which came at Michigan.
Clint Bowyer has never finished in the top five there and has just one career top 10. His last four finishes are – 17th, 22nd, 40th and 36th respectively. On the season, Bowyer’s last 10 finishes are – 35th, 11th, 37th, 34th, 6th, 20th, 11th, 20th, 37th and seventh respectively. That’s four finishes outside of the top 30 and six outside of the top 20. He went from +73 in the points after Kansas to -2 in the standings leaving Bristol.
Johnson In Danger Of Missing Playoffs
The big storyline heading into the final two races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season has to be the possibility that Jimmie Johnson misses out on the playoffs.
Since the postseason format was started in 2004, Johnson is the only NASCAR driver to have never missed the 10 race playoffs. Now, he’s in danger of not making it this year.
Johnson, left the Bristol Night race with a disappointing 19th place finish as he’s now 26 points behind the cutoff line with only two races to make up that deficit.
I feel like through two races with Cliff Daniels on top of his pit box, the two aren’t clicking. In Watkins Glen, he had some questionable pit calls which left him in the position that he was in.
Johnson didn’t feel like he should have ever been in the back to get caught up in a crash with Austin Dillon at Bristol either. He felt he was there because of not practicing with the right plan on Friday. Instead, he rolled off 30th on Saturday night. That’s because the direction that they went on Friday. In both practice sessions, they worked on race trim. They never simulated a qualifying run. That cost them dearly. It’s likely the reason he was in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
Then, he had issues the rest of the night and finished four laps down. To make matters worse, Ryan Newman finished 11th and extended his gap to 14. Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez would come home seventh and eighth respectively.
Johnson, fell further behind as he also scored zero stage points again. His last six finishes on the season are 30th, 30th, 15th, 19th, 34th and 19th respectively.
This doesn’t look like a playoff team. He now has to win at either Darlington or Indy to keep his playoff streak alive. Reality says though, that he won’t. His winless drought is now to 83 races.
Busch Hoping To Catch Teammates Again
Kyle Busch was the heavy favorite heading into the last race of the season in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. He was +275 in the betting world. The next best was more than double behind.
Busch, had won three times in his last four Bristol starts including just back in the spring race in April.
But, his weekend was a struggle from the get go. Busch, was only fifth and 16th respectively in practice on Friday and 17th overall in final practice on long run speed. That led to a 31st place starting spot for the main event.
Busch, struggled with a bad handling car early on. By Lap 79, he was a lap down. He had to go off strategy to get his lap back and had to go even more off strategy for track position. But, they needed some help to remain up front though.
Busch, got that via a caution on Lap 362 which put him on strategy with everyone else. Now, he had track position and fresh tires but it really didn’t matter. He didn’t have the handling in his No. 18 Toyota to really do anything with it as he brought his car home with a fourth place run on Saturday night.
“We were just too loose at the end,” Busch said in Bristol. “The car was just wasn’t ever there all weekend long. I never found what I was looking for. We were just kind of all over the place. We were so loose at the early on I was just barely hanging on. We finally got it tightened up enough when I was racing with the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and I finally got the lead so we just tried to make it better on exit and after that we were going to go a long run on tires we figured, but just made it too loose. I had no rears. We salvaged a hard fought day with a fourth place finish.”
The top five was Busch’s first since July 13 at the Kentucky Speedway. It was also just his second in the last eight races. Meanwhile, he’s watched Denny Hamlin win twice to tie him with the most all season at four. Martin Truex Jr. has also scored four wins now too.
Over the last eight races, Busch has two top fives compared to Hamlin’s six, Erik Jones’ four and Truex Jr’s three.
“We’re flat out getting out ass kicked by our teammates so we’ve got to get better.”
Can he get back on track this weekend in Darlington? Busch, will have to start last as he had an engine problem in qualifying. Instead of starting 33rd, they went conservative and gave up six spots to change it. He’s been good there but so have his teammates too.
42 Larson – I think this is his weekend. Larson, has led over 400 combined laps in the last two years. He’s finished third in two of the last three years. He has been hot on the season and was sixth and second in practice on Friday including being fastest on the 10 lap average chart in final practice. He starts third.
11 Hamlin – Why not keep it going? Hamlin, enters on a top five streak and has finished in the top 10 in four straight years at Darlington. Also, he was 11th and eighth respectively in practice on Friday including being second in final practice on the 10 lap average chart. The JGR driver won Saturday’s NXS race too.
24 Byron – He has started first in all three major races this season. But, like those other three, I don’t think he wins. Byron, was second and third respectively in practice on Friday and I do think he does get a top five on Sunday night.
1 KuBusch – This has been a strong track for Busch lately. He’s finished in the top six in three of the last four years and was first and fourth respectively in practice on Friday. Busch, was also eighth on the 10 lap averages as well. For the race, he starts fourth.
19 Truex Jr. – I think he gets back on track this weekend. Truex, was 10th and seventh respectively in practice to go along with being fourth on 10 lap averages. Also, Truex, has four straight top 11 finishes on the South Carolina race track as well.