Sunday’s race at Indianapolis is the final race of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. And there are a lot of drivers already locked into the playoffs.
Fourteen of the 16 playoff spots are already clinched. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones have all qualified via at least one win through the first 25 races.
The remaining spots seem destined to be occupied by two of the four drivers who can still mathematically qualify for the playoffs without having to win on Sunday. Sure, a driver in 19th or worse in the standings could win at Indy, but that seems incredibly farfetched.
So we’re going to operate on the assumption that the playoffs will be filled out by a couple of the drivers below.
15. Clint Bowyer, 625 points
16. Daniel Suarez, 617
17. Ryan Newman, 617
18. Jimmie Johnson, 599
You’ll notice that Suarez and Newman are tied in points. If necessary, the tiebreaker for the final spot is a driver’s best finish, and Bowyer and Suarez have the advantage there. Bowyer has a second-place finish at Texas while Suarez finished third there. Johnson was third at Daytona in July and Newman, who has just one top-five finish this season, was fifth in that same race.
If Johnson and Suarez end up tied for the final spot and neither driver finishes in the top six, the tiebreaker goes to Johnson by virtue of his sixth-place finish at Kansas. Both Johnson and Suarez have three top-five finishes and those finishes are a third, a fourth and a fifth respectively.
Let’s take a quick look at the histories of each of the four drivers at Indianapolis.
After winning two races in 2018, Bowyer certainly looked like a top-10 driver entering the 2019 season. Whoops. While he has five top-five finishes, none of them have happened in the last 11 races.
Indianapolis hasn’t been his best track, either. He has three top-five finishes and four top 10s in 13 career starts. Though he did finish fifth in 2018. Another fifth should be good enough to get him into the playoffs. Heck, a 10th should given the (lack of) speed shown by the drivers behind him. While Bowyer isn’t going to be a title threat if he does make the playoffs, there’s no excuse for him to be one of the two drivers on the outside looking in.
Suarez was seventh in his first start at Indianapolis in 2017 and finished 18th in 2018. Both of those starts came for Joe Gibbs Racing. He has the benefit of being in a faster car and on a faster team than the guy he’s directly racing for the final spot. So all Suarez needs to do is stay ahead of Newman. That’s easier said than done, of course. Especially if Newman isn’t going to forget what happened last week when the two were racing each other at Darlington.
This is where the lack of Newman’s overall speed could really hurt him. Newman — who won at the Brickyard in 2013 while driving for Stewart-Haas Racing — and his Roush Fenway Racing team are in the playoff picture because of their ability to avoid DNFs and bad finishes. Newman has been running at the end of every race and hasn’t finished lower than 25th.
But Newman also only has eight top-10 finishes along with that one top five. While Johnson only has eight top 10s as well, he at least has three top fives. Newman needs another day where his team plays a solid strategy and he finishes 12th or so while Suarez doesn’t score any stage points and finishes 15th.
The seven-time champion has four wins and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts at Indianapolis. But we all know that this isn’t looking likely for Johnson to get win No. 5 at Indy on Sunday. Johnson’s been searching for speed all season and it seems unlikely that his team could find race-winning speed on Sunday. Will the No. 48 bunch have enough to get Johnson into the playoffs? Maybe. But 18 points is a lot to make up on two drivers. He’s going to need Suarez and Newman to have some misfortune.
This seems pretty straightforward. While it’s tempting to pick Johnson because of sentimental reasons, I’m not going there. I don’t have the confidence that he can make up 18 points. 2019 will be the first season where Johnson misses the playoffs.
That leaves three drivers for the final two spots. Bowyer should be one of those drivers in the playoffs. He’s the first choice. The other? It should be Suarez. He has the faster car. But Newman doesn’t go away. And we’ve seen what he’ll do to advance in the playoffs, with the body slam he had of Larson in 2014 at Phoenix. Given Newman spun in close proximity of Suarez at Darlington, something tells me that Newman will have that at the forefront of his mind during Sunday’s race. And somehow, some way, he’ll sneak into the playoffs.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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