With just six races remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, there is as much attention being paid to the bottom of the championship ladder as the top.
Just 101 points separate 13th place from 21st in the regular-season standings, with no fewer than nine drivers fighting over the final four spots on the playoff grid. Kyle Larson is now ranked 13th, 31 points above the cutoff line. Hot off a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday, Erik Jones climbed to 14th in the standings, 28 points to the good. Ryan Newman helped his cause with a seventh-place finish at the Magic Mile, jumping to 15th in the standings, 21 points above the Danger Zone. Clint Bowyer (20th in New Hampshire) is now on the hot seat as the final playoff qualifier, 17 points ahead of multi-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson finished 30th Sunday -- 13 laps down -- continuing an up-and-down season that has seen him dancing on the edge of the playoff blade, virtually every week.
With just two laps remaining in the second stage of Sunday’s Johnson was poised to claim a handful of much-needed bonus points. He was sixth on a Lap 149 restart, but ran into the back of another car as the green flag waved, creating debris that damaged the pulleys on the front of his Ally Chevrolet’s engine. Those damaged pulleys quickly spit the power steering and water pump belts, plummeting him through the field and forcing him to pit road for lengthy repairs.
“It was certainly a letdown, to say the least,” said Johnson after the race. “We had some issues with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some
contact on the restart. I got into the back of the car in front of
“They told me that wasn’t the case, so I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. It’s just unlucky on that front. (It was) certainly the wrong time of year to have bad luck.”
Less than a month ago, after posting back-to-back Top-5 finishes at Chicagoland and Daytona, the Hendrick Motorsports driver looked ready to return to his customary championship form. Consecutive 30th-place results at Kentucky and New Hampshire have dropped him from 15th to 17th in the championship chase, however, and his involvement in the 2019 postseason is once again in doubt, to say the least.
He is currently tied with Stewart Haas Racing youngster Daniel Suarez for 17th in the regular-season standings, trailed by Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Chris Buescher; all of whom are still mathematically eligible (though highly unlikely) to make the playoffs on points.
“We’ve been trying all year,” said Johnson, the only driver to qualify for the postseason every year since NASCAR invoked its playoff-style format in 2004. “It’s not like we can magically flip a switch and all of a sudden have more. We’ve been able to run in the Top-5 and we need to get back to doing that. That’s really what it boils down to.”
“(This is) certainly the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck,” he added. “The guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”
While Joey Logano and Kyle Busch continue their mano-a-mano battle for the 2019 regular season title, the next six weeks will almost certainly focus an increased amount of attention on the final few seats at the playoff dance.