It’s taken a few years and 25 races to get here, but there’s playoff drama to be found heading into this weekend’s Cup Series regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After years where the playoff field was largely decided in the weeks prior to the finale, a quartet of drivers have proven unable to get away from each other with the playoffs approaching in 2019. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez are just clear of the bubble, with Suarez in solely on a tiebreaker. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson find themselves in pursuit, in need of a magical day at the Brickyard to make their postseason hopes come to life.
So, who’s going to make it? Which two of the drivers will prevail?
Let’s take a look at the odds of each driver heading into a rare dramatic regular season finale.
Contender 1: Clint Bowyer
Odds: Above Average
If you were to ask Bowyer about his season, he’d likely tell you that he never anticipated being in the position he finds himself in heading into this weekend’s race.
The Kansas native started the year strong, and was in the top 10 in points as recently as Pocono Raceway in June. But a massive summer slump — with four DNFs and just three top 10s — sent Bowyer free-falling through the standings. He was outside of the bubble leaving the Bristol Night Race, and entered the year’s last off-week at risk of missing the postseason altogether.
But Bowyer fans, I have good news. He’s as likely as any of the bubble contenders to make the playoff field.
Bowyer’s returned to form in the past two weeks, carrying the No. 14 Ford to back-to-back top 10s. His five top fives lead the way for the bubble group, as do his 11 top 10s.
There’s still risk involved. Bowyer can’t afford any errors, and he’s not a sure thing at Indy. But the veteran scored a top-five at the track just last year, and he has an eight-point buffer to leverage.
No one in this quartet is a guarantee to make the playoffs. But Boywer has the best odds of the group.
Contender 2: Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez is on the cusp of his first playoff appearance. Now can the 2016 Xfinity Series champion make it happen?
Potentially. But it’s far from a sure thing.
Let’s start with the positives. Suarez has arguably the best equipment of the bubble drivers, matching Bowyer in Stewart-Haas Racing equipment that also has Kevin Harvick sitting fourth in the standings. The Mexico native’s nine top-10s this season top all but Boywer among the four contenders, and his three top fives match Johnson for second among the group.
The only issue at hand for Suarez is inconsistency. His team has struggled to string together consistent runs this year, pairing a group runs in the top 10 with a trio of result outside of the top 15.
It’s difficult to gauge Suarez’s potential at IMS. He has just two previous starts at the track, with a best finish of seventh for Joe Gibbs Racing. But this year is a different scenario. He’ll be racing with maximum pressure on himself and the No. 41 team to perform.
If the group can live up to it, they’ll likely be in the playoffs next week. If not, the best bet to knock them out is the next guy on this list…
Contender 3: Ryan Newman
The other side of the dead heat with Suarez, Newman finds himself with the opposite scenario to the third-year prospect. He has consistency and experience, but may be lacking in equipment and top-end results.
Much like in previous playoff runs – the most notable being his 2014 runner-up season – Newman has made his bed with consistency this year. He’s had just five runs outside of the top 20, helping to overcome a lack of top speed and just one top five.
That makes Indy a game of risk for Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Past statistics show that Newman is likely to put together a quiet, consistent drive, locking up a finish somewhere in the 7-20 range. If his fellow competitors struggle, that could well be good enough to crack the field. But if Suarez, Bowyer or even Johnson can find top-end pace, Newman could be in trouble.
The Hoosier has a previous win at the Brickyard in 2013, edging out Johnson in a race dominated by strategy. If he can’t get stage points, Sunday’s race may require a similar performance to keep Newman’s playoff ambitions afloat.
Contender 4: Jimmie Johnson
Who’d have thought this day would ever come – when Seven-Time would be on the cusp of elimination at one of his best tracks?
A subpar year without former crew chief Chad Knaus has led Johnson to the brink of his first failed playoff bid this season, with the Californian trailing Suarez and Newman by 18 points heading into the regular season finale.
Johnson has a history of overcoming obstacles when the pressure is on, and he has a strong history at Indianapolis. His four wins trails only mentor and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon on the Brickyard’s all-time NASCAR wins list.
But the No. 48 team may well be in a hole too deep to dig out of this week. Even with strong stage performances, Johnson would need to defeat the other contenders outright in Stage 3. Considering he hasn’t has so much as a top-10 since his third-place run at Daytona International Speedway in July, that’s not looking likely.
The finale being at Indianapolis helps Johnson’s cause, but recent history shows that might not matter, either. The Californian has suffered from inconsistency at the 2.5-mile oval in recent years, with an average finish of 15.4 in the past half of a decade.
We’ve all been taught not to count Johnson out, so to go that far would be ill-advised. But it’s fair to doubt his chances for playoff advancement entering the regular season finale.
Bonus: Can anyone else crack the field?
I know what you’re thinking. The aforementioned four drivers are attempting to race their way into the postseason on points. But what of the rest of the field. Can anyone outside of the playoff grid win their way into the postseason?
Well… It isn’t likely.
Kasey Kahne accomplished the feat two years ago, but that took heavy rain, the top two cars crashing themselves out, a well-timed caution and enough restarts to work his way to the front in the closing laps.
The odds of that happening again are low. But it is possible, so the concept shouldn’t be ruled out. If it doesn’t happen, look for the recently surging Matt DiBenedetto, 2011 Brickyard winner Paul Menard and the upset-minded Austin Dillon to be among the drivers that may find a way to the front.