NASCAR’s Playoff bubble gets bigger after Michigan
Kevin Harvick wasn’t the only winner at Michigan Sunday. Several drivers hoping to make it into NASCAR’s playoffs this season have a bit more security with just three races remaining before the 16 driver Playoff field is set.
Chief among them is Ryan Newman. Newman entered the day tied for the 16th and final spot but losing out on a tiebreaker. Newman never contended for the win Sunday but late in the going when crews were rolling the fuel mileage dice, his crew chief Scott Graves made the right call pitting his driver for an extra splash of fuel just before the field went green for the final run. As several of the leaders ran out of fuel in the closing laps, Newman came home 12th and moved up to 15th in the standings. Far from a lock but 6 points above 16th so a bit more secure.
Newman wasn’t the only driver winning in the standings. Daniel Suarez came into the race 18th, 23 points back of 17th and 35 from 16th.
He too played the fuel mileage game to perfection moving up to fifth on the final lap and moving up to 17th 4 points out 16th spot and suddenly becomes a playoff contender.
“We had ups and downs,” Suarez said. “There was something wrong, a bad set of tires or something in that second stage. We couldn’t control it. The team was able to overcome that with good adjustments and they put me back in the game with track position and we were able to get a good result from there.”
Two drivers had days they would consider losses, even though at the end of the day, they really didn’t loose all that much.
Jimmie Johnson held the final playoff spot when the green flag dropped. But on lap 15, his No. 48 Chevrolet slapped the outside wall, severely damaging the right side of the car. He was able to make it to pit road and came out three laps down. Just a few laps later however, any hope for a comeback for at least a decent finish ended when damage from the crash caused a flat tire and sent him back to pit road. He came back out and finished 34th, eight laps down.
“The right-side tires went into the PJ1 and as soon as I got my tires in it, I went straight into the wall,” Johnson said. “When you’re aggressive, it doesn’t work and then sometimes you’re cautious and it doesn’t work. It was a great car. That hurt, for sure. We’re just going to have to rally on and these guys are doing an amazing job. We’ll keep digging.”
With news of Johnson’s misfortune relayed to him, Clint Bowyer hoped to seize the opportunity to move up from the 15th place position he started in. It wasn’t to be.
On lap 137 while running near the top 10 contact with the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford of Paul Menard sent Bowyer’s car into the turn 3 wall, and efforts to repair the car proved futile. Bowyer retired from the race in 37th place.
“We have to get something figured out with these racetracks,” Bowyer 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 am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks. 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.”
Thanks to Bowyer’s misfortune, he wasn’t able to make up any ground, but still leaves with the 16th spot, Johnson is 18th and still within striking distance, 12 points behind Bowyer
“The guys around that cutoff point, all seem to be having bad luck,” Johnson said. “If one of us could just string together some good races and get in the clear and get away. You’ve just got to keep fighting for every point.”