It is highly unlikely that the drivers toward the bottom of the playoff grid are going to wind up hoisting the big trophy in November. Let’s face facts, there is a reason they are fighting tooth and nail just be a part of the postseason.
But it has been fascinating to see some of the sport’s biggest names become the subject of so many headlines this summer. And that is only going to increase with three races to go in the regular season.
Bristol. Darlington. Indianapolis. Go big or go home. Or should I say, go to the next race as obligated, but enjoy 10 weeks of irrelevancy as all focus will be on the 16 drivers talking up how they have as good a chance as the next guy to win the championship.
The champion is going to be one of the guys who have performed all year. Guys who have shown they can win on any given week. For the guys at the bottom, just making the playoffs is often the highlight of their season.
Don’t think so? The anomaly has been Tony Stewart, who entered the 2011 playoffs claiming he had no chance before winning 50% of the postseason races and his third title. Here’s where the eventual champion has been seeded every year since the playoffs began, and note that 2014 was the first year under the current elimination style format:
2004, Kurt Busch: seventh of 10 (drivers)
2005, Tony Stewart: first of 10
2006, Jimmie Johnson: second of 10
2007, Johnson: first of 12
2008, Johnson: third of 12
2009, Johnson: second of 12
2010, Johnson: second of 12
2011, Stewart: ninth of 12
2012, Brad Keselowski: second of 12
2013, Jimmie Johnson: second of 13
2014, Kevin Harvick: sixth of 16
2015, Kyle Busch: first of 16
2016, Johnson: fourth of 16
2017, Martin Truex Jr.: first of 16
2018, Joey Logano: sixth of 16
Of course, 16 drivers even qualifying for the playoffs is too much. But that’s a battle that has already been fought on this website.
William Byron, Kyle Larson, and Erik Jones have been doing all the right things to earn some breathing room on the cutline. All three are performing well, and with 89, 71, and 70 points respectively on the cutline, that is over a full race advantage.
And that comes at the expense of these guys …
Ryan Newman (+16)
We already know that Newman takes no solace in elevating the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. The numbers show that Newman is doing much, much better than the two drivers who split the ride last season, but the veteran only cares about winning.
Sure, Newman and crew chief Scott Graves haven’t looked like race winners, but every so often they quietly sneak into the top five or top-10 and make you talk about them. Their eight top-10 finishes this year have come on a variety of tracks, which shows they have all the pieces but they still lack raw speed and consistency.
Michigan was the latest example of the team being there when it matters most as Newman gained 16 spots in the final 50 laps to finish 12th. Doing so catapulted him to 15th on the playoff grid after being tied for the last spot going into the weekend.
On one hand, Newman making it all the way to Miami and winning the title seems a ridiculous thought. But, he nearly pulled it off in 2014 when he was second to Harvick in the first year of the elimination format. However, I think it’s safe to say there won’t be a repeat of that this year and Newman just making the postseason, which probably wasn’t predicted by many coming into the year, would be a nice boost for Roush Fenway. Just don’t count on him celebrating it too much.
Clint Bowyer (+6)
Bowyer said back in Daytona that his team is not a 16th-place team, but here they are still being bounced around the bubble. When you hear the words “Bowyer” and “Stewart-Haas Racing” you think championship material … but not this year. The No. 14 Ford team has not only been a victim of bad racing luck, but have also shot themselves in the foot too many times.
Nine top-10 finishes through 23 races is not acceptable for this group. Bowyer has the right mentality in repeatedly expressing that making the playoffs doesn’t mean a thing if your team isn’t able to realistically challenge for the title. So, it wasn’t all that surprising that after crashing at Michigan – his sixth DNF of the season – Bowyer sounded like a defeated man.
“We have to get something figured out with these racetracks,” he said. “We are really fast by ourselves, practice and qualifying really well, in the top five almost every single time, but then we start the race and don’t make the grip we need to compete. We definitely need to find some things out.
“You can talk about the bubble and worrying about points, but I’m way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of racetracks. If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it, then what is the use? We have some things to work out. We have some time. We have some good racetracks for us, including Bristol, coming up. We have plenty of racing, but we have to get some things figured out.”
Bowyer sat as high as eighth in points earlier this year, and when the team doesn’t have any problems, they’ve performed as expected. But it’s trending downhill when they can least afford it to, and it’s almost time to completely write him off.
Daniel Suarez (-6)
On this week’s podcast, Suarez admitted he thought it “was going to be easier, for sure” to make the playoffs. But his No. 41 Ford team is another one that has been either hot or cold this year. Like his teammate Bowyer, when Suarez and his group are on, they are just as good as the top teams in the series. On Sunday in Michigan his was the second-highest finishing SHR car.
Suarez is putting together a career year in the Cup Series by posting improved numbers from his first two seasons, such as more laps led this year than the last two combined, and with his next top-five finish he’ll break the mark he earned last year. But Suarez has never made the postseason before, and playoffs are expected when you drive for Joe Gibbs and now Tony Stewart.
Of all the drivers in this battle for the playoffs, Suarez has to be looked at as having the most pressure on him to be one of the 16 drivers labeled championship contenders. Even more so than this next guy …
Jimmie Johnson (-12)
Well, what more can be said here? It’s been 800 days since Johnson last won a Cup Series race and as he detailed for us earlier this year, he’s felt it’s been even longer since his No. 48 Chevrolet team has been as good as they once were. The tale of this year is simple: good one week, terrible the next.
Johnson went 17 years with one crew chief. He’s now on his second crew chief of the season. He described it in Pocono as a “three-alarm fire” to make the playoffs. He’s made mistakes. The cars haven’t been good. He’s been caught up in other’s problems. Break it down however you want, but #chasing8 remains a long way from being attained.
As for Paul Menard, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and everyone else on the outside looking in, no one has shown they can put together enough consistency to get in the playoffs on points, so it’ll be about pulling off a win in the next three weeks.
And that isn’t a bet I would put money on.