NASCAR season ending soon, which stars are at risk of missing the playoffs?
By BRENDAN MARKS | The Charlotte Observer | Published: August 9, 2018
News breaks, headlines are made, but nothing can stop the inevitable nature of the NASCAR season.
Specifically, the impending conclusion of it.
There are only four races left in the 2018 Cup Series regular season. We’ll start in Michigan this weekend, then head to Bristol, Darlington and finally Indianapolis. And then, along with the 16 best drivers the sport can proffer, we’ll go onward to the playoffs.
Only, some of the sport’s recognizable names won’t be joining in on the postseason festivities. The Big 3 — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — will be there. So too will Chase Elliott, fresh off his long-awaited first Cup victory.
But as for some of those who could miss out on the playoffs? Well, these four drivers are all in danger. Time for them to get it together these next four weeks, or else suffer an early end to their seasons:
Alex Bowman: If the season ended today, Bowman would be in. Barely. He’s the very last driver into the playoffs based off the current points standings, and he’s only 62 points clear of the next-closest driver (more on him later). Bowman has done a fine job replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car this season, just not a spectacular one. He earned his lone pole for the Daytona 500 in February, and since then has scored two Top 5s. Bowman’s inconsistency is what has really hurt him this year, and what could be his downfall with so little margin for error.
Jimmie Johnson: The idea of Jimmie Johnson — a seven-time Cup Series champion and one of the sport’s greatest drivers — missing the playoffs sounds loony. Absolutely ridiculous. And yet, it’s still a possibility. Johnson is stuck in the midst of a career-worst season, coming off of … what he self-identified as his career-worst season. Not a good sign. Johnson’s 102 points clear of the playoff cut line for now, but all it takes to change that is two other new drivers winning in these last four weeks. Johnson won’t be an easy out by any means, but for one of the first times in recent memory, the chance of him missing out isn’t unrealistic.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse has probably been best-known this season as Danica Patrick’s ex-boyfriend or that guy who wrecked half the field at Daytona in July. Either way, not a good look. And yet somehow, Stenhouse is still in the playoff mix. He’d be the first guy out if the regular season ended today, but he’s also got two more playoff points than the two guys ahead of him (the same two on this list). Stenhouse only has two Top 5s this season, and runs most of his races in the top-10 to -15 range. It’s not great, but it may be good enough to sneak into the playoffs. If only one of these last four races was a restrictor-plate race …
Ryan Newman: It’s been about 15 years since Newman’s prime, but as recently as 2014, he was truly contending for a championship. Now, he’d be lucky to get into the playoffs at all. Richard Childress Racing’s decline has mirrored Newman’s, and his 20th-place standing currently shows that. And while teammate Austin Dillon, also in the midst of a subpar season, was able to steal a win and sneak into the playoffs guaranteed, Newman hasn’t been so lucky. He doesn’t have a Top 5 this season, and if he fails to do so, it would be his first full-time campaign without one. Darlington is one of his best tracks, and if can finish well there, there’s still hope for Newman to steal the last playoff slot. Not likely, but hope nonetheless.
This week’s NASCAR race: Michigan
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Consumers Energy 400.
Distance: 200 laps, or 400 miles.
Where: Michigan International Speedway, a 2-mile asphalt oval in Brooklyn, Michigan.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Larson.
Also this week: Rock N Roll Tequila 170 Presented by Amethyst Beverage, Xfinity Series, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 3 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: Due to its recent repaving in 2012, moderate banking and lack of restrictor plates, Michigan is typically considered NASCAR’s fastest track.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Chase Elliott: His first career Cup Series victory was long-awaited, celebratory and the easiest way to clinch a playoff spot.
Martin Truex Jr.: He may have lost out on a fifth win this season, but Truex’s second-place finish shows his team is trending up at the right time this year.
Joey Logano: A DNF at the Glen only punctuates Logano’s decline over the second half of this season — he hasn’t scored a Top 5 since May.
Jimmie Johnson: It’s been a second unkind summer in a row for the seven-time Cup champion, and after finishing 30th last weekend, his playoff cushion is rapidly shrinking.