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BIG NAMES ON THE BUBBLE IN NASCAR’S TOP SERIES
Have you looked at the calendar lately? The summer’s flown by nearly as fast as 40 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rides flying out of Turn 4 at Texas toward the start-finish line. There are officially two groups of people who aren’t pleased with this development: kids going back to school and big name NASCAR drivers who are at risk of their bubble being popped in three races at Indianapolis.
A look at the standings shows plenty of power at the top. Last year’s Championship Four are in the top-five of the standings with a combined 12 wins in 23 races. The guy who caught fire at this time last year, Brad Keselowski, is 6th with three wins of his own, and round out the three-win club is a rejuvenated Denny Hamlin, 4th overall.
The “young guns” are starting to flex their muscle a little, even if the wins haven’t started to rain down. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman are all firmly within the top-10, and with Chad Knauss at the helm, William Byron is 12th in his second year behind the wheel at Hendrick Motorsports.
It almost makes you forget about the bubble, at least until you see the names wrapped around either side of it: Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson.
For Suarez, being on the bubble is better than what he accomplished in his short stint at Joe Gibbs Racing so the youngster gets a pass, but what about the others?
- Jimmie Johnson has never missed the playoffs in his career. That’s 15 straight years with a chance to win the championship, and of course he did it half the time winning his record seven premier series titles. He’s only been outside the top-six four times, and they happen to be four of the past five seasons.
- Clint Bowyer hasn’t had the playoff staying power that JJ has (no one has), but he’s been in a mainstay as the season winds down, making the field seven times in 12 years and finishing in the top-five three times.
- Ryan Newman has eight berths into the playoff field in 15 tries, and he nearly pulled the whole thing off without winning a single race in 2014. Kevin Harvick topped him by a single point.
Each driver seems to be in a little different position as they stay bunched together fighting for the final top spots in this year’s field.
For Newman a move has produced little change. Things went stale at Richard Childress Racing as Newman grew accustomed to life on the bubble. The last three years at RCR produced 18th, 16th, and 17th place efforts. Now he’s at Roush Fenway Racing and is currently 15th, 16 points above the cutline. He’s definitely more competitive this year, having 18 lead lap finishes in 23 races. He had just 21 all of last year. His average finish is also up from 17th to 14th in 2019.
Bowyer seemed to have it made for the first time in years in 2018. Settling in at Stewart-Haas Racing he peaked at 3rd in the points after Richmond 1 in April and hung out in 5th or 6th place most of the season will racking up his first two wins since 2012. It’s back to earth this year. Bowyer has five top-five finishes in 23 races and hasn’t won, leaving him 16th, directly on the good side of the cut line. He’s spent much of the season vocally protesting the current car package, both in the media and on his scanner frequency, and with nine races since his last top-five it brings into question whether or not he can stay there.
Following Suarez, who’s 17th right now, we see the shocker. Jimmie Johnson is below the cutline by 12 points, putting himself against the wall with just three races to get there. He’s doing himself no favors, finishing 30th or worse in three of the past five races and accumulating a pair of top-fives in the past 10 starts.
It’s tough to say which driver will get the job done, but stats at the upcoming tracks certainly point toward not giving up on Jimmie just yet. At Bristol, Darlington, and Indianapolis Johnson boasted a total of nine wins, 27 top-fives, and 40 top-10s. He’s first among active drivers in wins at Darlington (3) and Indy (4); top-fives at all three tracks (Bristol-12, Darlington-9, Indy-6); and top-10s at Bristol (21).
Newman and Bowyer have one combined win at the three tracks, Newman’s 2013 triumph where Johnson actually led the most laps and finished 2nd.
If we’re talking best chances to make a good run and maybe even get a clinching win it’s likely going to need to come this weekend at Bristol for Bowyer. He has seven top-fives and 14 top-10s at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, both 6th among active drivers. He only has five combined top-10 runs at the other two tracks.
For Newman it’s a little more complex. He’s 2nd among active drivers with 19 top-10s at Bristol, but he’s only been top-five twice. At Indy he has the win, but just five other top-10s. His best cumulative numbers are actually at Darlington. He’s 2nd in top-fives with seven and first in top-10s with 13. Darlington is his best average finish of any track (min. 2 races) at 12.1 so if Newman’s making a move it might happen in the Southern 500.
With three extremely different disciplines remaining, it offers all three drivers every opportunity to prove they belong in the big show in 2019.