There have been 25 race trophies awarded this season – 25 opportunities to lock in a Playoff berth – but for the four drivers on the bubble, the last two Playoff positions will depend on their outing in Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard powered by Florida Georgia Line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Veteran Clint Bowyer in 15th holds an eight-point edge on Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Daniel Suarez and Roush Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman, who are tied in points. Suarez, however, holds the tiebreaker and is currently slotted into the 16th and final Playoff position entering the race while Newman is on the outside in 17th.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is ranked 18th – 18 points behind Suarez and Newman and 26 points behind Bowyer.
But there is also the possibility that a driver ranked below this foursome could earn one of those Playoff spots with a victory Sunday – which would leave room for only one of them to advance to the postseason on points.
Of the four still eligible to point their way in – Johnson holds a clear statistical advantage. Only NASCAR Hall of Famer and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon has won more Indianapolis races (five) than Johnson’s four. And Newman is the only other driver among this Playoff-hopeful quartet with a victory at Indianapolis – winning the 2013 race from the pole position.
In order of their current ranking, Bowyer has three top-five and four top-10 finishes in 13 Indianapolis starts, including a fifth place last year when he tied Denny Hamlin with a race-best 37 laps led.
Suarez has finishes of seventh and 18th in two starts at Indianapolis but has never led a lap.
Newman has had three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 18 career starts, including a third place in 2017. He’s finished in the top 10 in his last two Indianapolis starts, adding in a 10th-place result last year.
With his four Brickyard trophies, Johnson is not only best among those still vying for a Playoff positions but also best in Sunday’s field. He has six top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He won there four times in a seven-year span between 2006-2012, was runner-up in 2013 and then third in 2016. He was 16th last year.
Last week Bowyer bested the four drivers with a sixth-place finish at Darlington – good enough to move him up from 17thin the standings to a Playoff-eligible 15th. His SHR teammate Suarez was 11th at Darlington, securing him that 16th-place designation while Newman was 23rd Saturday night, putting him 17th in the Playoff standings – one spot out of the postseason.
Johnson finished 16th but earned some important stage points. He was running fourth when he was collected in a multi-car accident on Lap 276 of the 367-lap race.
Of note – Johnson has never missed the Playoffs in the 15 years the postseason has been in place for the Monster Energy Series.
And a historical note that Newman and Johnson will try to overcome…in the most recent two seasons, no driver raced into the Playoffs by virtue of his finish in the regular season finale.