It feels like just yesterday that the 2019 NASCAR season kicked off with the 61st running of the DAYTONA 500. Time has flown by since Denny Hamlin went to Victory Lane in the season opener, and here we are in September with just one race remaining before the playoffs begin.
Most of the playoff field is set, as 14 drivers have already locked in spots based on either winning a race or accumulating enough points during the season. The final two spots, however, are still up for grabs and we’re sure to see an intense clash as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday for the regular season finale.
The battle for the final, coveted playoff spots is between Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. Of course, if someone such as Paul Menard or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were to win on Sunday, they’d
automatically qualify for the playoffs even if they finish lower than the four aforementioned drivers in the points standings.
Right now, Bowyer has the edge with an eight-point advantage, but with extra points awarded for the top-10 finishers in each stage, that lead could quickly evaporate should one of the other drivers in the mix go on to win either of Stages 1 or 2.
Things get really interesting when you move on to Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman. If the season were to end today, Suarez would make the playoffs based on a tiebreaker. It’s remarkable that after 25 races Newman and Suarez are dead even at 617 points. It really goes to show how every position on the racetrack matters throughout the entire season.
And if Darlington was any indication, Newman and Suarez will be scratching and clawing for every point they can get. About halfway through the race, the two drivers made contact which resulted in Newman spinning out and finishing 23rd while Suarez came home in 11th. After the race, both drivers voiced their frustrations and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of them get together again at Indianapolis with only one of them leaving with a playoff spot in hand.
We have to be sure not to lose sight of seven-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. He finds himself 18 points outside of the playoffs, and after showing speed at Darlington, he feels like he has a chance to run out front again this week. And with more wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway than any other driver in the field, you can’t count him out in a must-win situation.
While we watch these four drivers vie for the last four playoff berths, let’s not forget about the other 14 drivers who have already clinched their spot in the playoffs. Before the playoffs begin, it’s important to remember how that stage has been set up to this point.
Among those drivers who are already locked in are the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs has become the gold standard in NASCAR this season with all four drivers making the playoffs and combining for 13 wins.
Right behind Joe Gibbs Racing is the stable of drivers at Team Penske. Like Gibbs, all three of the Penske drivers – Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – are locked into the playoffs, and after capturing the title last season, Joey Logano has to be viewed as one of the favorites to win the MENCS championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway again this year.
Gibbs and Penske have been the dominant teams this year, but a number of other drivers have shown promise throughout the year. Veterans Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch continue to impress late in their careers, and as past champions, they know what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Young Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are on the cusp of breaking into NASCAR’s elite drivers as Elliott has won multiple races for the second consecutive season and Bowman found Victory Lane for the first time in his career this season.
So as the playoffs are almost set to begin, there are a number of intriguing storylines that could unfold before the MENCS playoffs culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway for Ford Championship Weekend. I’m eagerly awaiting the playoffs and I’m looking forward to the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we’ll get a glimpse of the intense and action-packed racing that we will only see more and more once the playoffs get underway.
NASCAR ACTION THIS WEEKEND
Sunday, September 8 at 2:00 PM (ET)
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Tune In: NBC and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90
Saturday, September 7 at 3:00 PM (ET)
NASCAR Xfinity Series Indiana 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Tune In: NBCSN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90
The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off this weekend and will return to action Friday, September 13 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
UPCOMING EVENTS AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY
Sep. 7-8 Ferrari Challenge
Sep. 13 Fast Lane Friday
Sep. 14-15 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)
Sep. 21 Give Back at the Track
Sep. 21 Craft n’ Draft 5K
2019 HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY NASCAR DATES
Ford EcoBoost 200 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship Race
Ford EcoBoost 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship
Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Series Championship Race