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Four drivers seek Bristol boost as NASCAR playoff bubble begins to shrink – USA TODAY

Four drivers seek Bristol boost as NASCAR playoff bubble begins to shrink – USA TODAY
16 Aug
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Jimmie Johnson knows the type of season he has endured, along with the other three drivers on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series bubble.

It appears four drivers – Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Johnson – will battle for the final two berths in the playoffs, and they all have had one thing in common.

“The guys around the cutoff point all seem to be having bad luck,” Johnson said after a 34th-place finish Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. “If one of us could string together some good races, you’d be clear and get away.”

That is a big “if” for these four drivers attempting to qualify for the 16-driver playoff field.

Newman, at 15th in the standings, is 16 points up on 17th-place Suarez and 22 points ahead of 18th-place Johnson, while 16th-place Bowyer is six points up on Suarez and 12 on Johnson.

NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for its annual short-track under-the-lights fight Saturday night (Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, 7:30 ET), then takes a weekend off before the traditional Labor Day weekend race at Darlington Raceway followed by the regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“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 racetracks,” Bowyer said. “If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it, then what is the use?”

Thanks to having won a race this year, nine drivers (Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman) have locked themselves into the playoffs. Another five drivers – Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones – have at least a 70-point edge on Suarez, the 17th-place driver, and appear safe unless there are upset winners who earn automatic berths to the playoffs.

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The chances of the bubble drivers stringing together three good races? Here’s a look:

Steady: Ryan Newman

Newman’s fate most likely rests with whether his competition can have great days. Newman most likely will put together three respectable finishes. He has not had a three-race stretch where he has earned fewer than 50 points (the other three have at least one), but he has not had a three-race stretch where he has earned at least 100 points – the other three have done it at least twice.

“I don’t think we’ve done our best,” said Newman, whose Roush Fenway Racing team hasn’t been able to point its way into the playoffs since 2014. “We’re capable of more. … Darlington is my favorite racetrack. I’ve won at Indy. And we were competitive at the first Bristol race. I don’t look at us as having any kind of disadvantage.

“I look at us having the opportunity and going there (to Bristol) and showing we have improved.”

His to lose: Clint Bowyer

Of the four bubble drivers, Bowyer has shown the most consistent speed but has had a feast-or-famine year.

Bowyer has failed to finish six races this year and has finished on the lead lap in just 14 of 23 races. Compare that to Newman, who has finished on the lead lap in 18 and doesn’t have a DNF.

A veteran at Stewart-Haas Racing, Bowyer has made it up with stage points – the top-10 drivers at the end of the first two race stages earn points – as he has 94 stage points this year, compared to Johnson with 66, Suarez with 54 and Newman with 39.

Bowyer also has five top-5 finishes, while Suarez and Johnson have three and Newman has one. This is how streaky Bowyer has been: in the last five races, he has scored 115 points (second among the four drivers); in the five races before that, he managed only 74 points (by far the worst).

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Mystery men: Suarez and Johnson

Good luck trying to predict what these drivers will do. Hendrick Motorsports’ Johnson knew what he was talking about when saying these guys just need to string together good runs.

Suarez and Johnson both have had 11 three-race stretches where they scored fewer than 70 points (two more than Newman, four more than Bowyer). The stage points tell the story – they are nowhere as high as Bowyer, showing they either don’t have the speed or don’t qualify well.

Just how tenuous is the position? Suarez was able to gamble a little bit on fuel mileage for a fifth-place finish last Sunday at Michigan as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver shortened his gap from the cutoff from 23 points to six points.

“Honestly, it doesn’t really matter,” said Suarez, looking to make the playoffs for the first time in his three-year Cup career. “If we shortened the gap, that’s good. And we go the next week and try to get in.”

Maybe Johnson, who has not missed the playoffs in the 15 years of the format, put it best as far as how to approach the final three races: “Fight for every point.”

Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass.

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Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2019/08/15/nascar-cup-playoff-bubble-drivers-ahead-bristol-night-race/2015560001/

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