Southern 500 A Biggie For Playoff Hopefuls

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 31 2019
Jimmie Johnson’s hopes to earn a berth in this year’s Cup Playoffs are in big trouble. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Two races, two positions, four drivers. That is the situation facing Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson as they battle for a spot in the playoffs. 

Entering Sunday’s Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, nine drivers own victories this season, guaranteeing them a position in the playoffs. Five more are comfortably positioned in the point standings, basically assuring them a shot at the championship. That means only the 15th and 16th positions are up for grabs. If a driver outside the top 14 positions in the standings wins either Darlington or Indianapolis — the final two races in the regular season — only one spot will be available for a driver trying to point his way into the playoffs. 

It’s a foreign position for Johnson, who enters Darlington 18th in the standings, 26 points behind Suarez in 16th. Not since NASCAR instituted its playoff system has Johnson been so close to missing participation in the post-season.

“I am worried,” admitted Johnson, who qualified sixth for Sunday’s race. “My experience tells me there is nothing I can do about it other than put my head down and get to work. We are not in the position we want to be in. It’s been a tough year for us, but my commitment to this team and my team’s commitment to me is stronger than it’s ever been. We’re going to grind it out and hopefully, we’ll make the playoffs. If we don’t, then our goal changes to really focusing on a race win before the year is out.

“If we are able to advance, it’s how long can we stay alive? Ultimately, I think the goal is the same, we want to win races.”

Johnson hasn’t won a race since June 2017. However, he has performed well at Darlington and Indy. The California native possesses three victories at Darlington and four at The Brickyard. 

Stewart-Haas driver Clint Bowyer could use a big finish at Darlington Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Another one of the four who performs well at those two historic tracks is Newman, who is 15th in the standings, 12 points head of Suarez. Even though Newman has yet to win at the 1.366-mile Darlington track, he has recorded seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 20 races. He won at Indianapolis in 2013. 

Newman admitted that having the final two races of the regular season at those tracks gave him a “percentage of confidence” that he would perform well.

“That doesn’t mean that we are capable and that doesn’t mean that some other guy is not going to be victorious and take away a spot,” said Newman, who qualified 24th. “We just have to go out and do our job and do our business as usual and just do the best we possibly can, which we’ve done to this point and it’s got us in playoff position. I know that we need to change to be better, but we also need to not change too much to be worse.”

Newman, who hasn’t won since March 2017, would like to lock himself into the playoffs with a victory, but noted that being in a battle for the last two positions in post-season has become a regular occurrence for him.   

“We don’t want to worry about letting these other guys try to race their way in points-wise, but we’re just gonna go out and do the best job we possibly can,” Newman said. “I’m racing more than four … but there are four or five that have more influence on the progress of our season.”

Suarez, who qualified fifth, has the least experience at the track nicknamed “The Lady in Black.” He only has two Cup starts on the nearly 70-year-old speedway. His best finish came last year when he placed 29th. Suarez admits he wishes he wasn’t battling Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for the bubble position. Bowyer is two points behind Suarez in 17th.

“Right now there are two spots there that are easy to get,” Suarez said. “I hope I can get one and he can get the other one, but you never know how things are gonna work out. Once we’re in the race, I take care of myself and he takes care of his self. 

Bowyer has been on a frustrating slide. In the last 10 races, he has recorded only two top-10 finishes.

“It sucks to be frustrated,” said Bowyer, who qualified 13th. “I don’t want to just go to the playoffs. I want to be in it to the end and win a championship. You don’t go to the playoffs just to get your picture taken with the playoff group. It’s a business. There’s money on the line. There’s prestige on the line.”

Sunday’s Bojangles Southern 500 starts at 6 p.m. and will be televised on NBCSN. William Byron earned the pole in his Chevrolet with a lap of 172.487 mph to become the youngest driver to accomplish the feat at Darlington. He also became only the third driver to win the pole for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 in the same season. 


NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – 70th Annual Southern 500
Darlington Raceway
Darlington, South Carolina
Saturday, August 31, 2019

                   1. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 172.487 mph.

                   2. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 172.088 mph.

                   3. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 171.842 mph.

                   4. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 171.764 mph.

                   5. (41) Daniel Suarez, Ford, 171.321 mph.

                   6. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 171.202 mph.

                   7. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 171.011 mph.

                   8. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 170.952 mph.

                   9. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 170.827 mph.

                   10. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 170.744 mph.

                   11. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 170.679 mph.

                   12. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 170.578 mph.

                   13. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 170.566 mph.

                   14. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 170.507 mph.

                   15. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 170.466 mph.

                   16. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 170.425 mph.

                   17. (21) Paul Menard, Ford, 170.324 mph.

                   18. (8) Daniel Hemric #, Chevrolet, 170.206 mph.

                   19. (95) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 170.130 mph.

                   20. (47) Ryan Preece #, Chevrolet, 170.100 mph.

                   21. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 169.977 mph.

                   22. (19) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 169.830 mph.

                   23. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 169.473 mph.

                   24. (6) Ryan Newman, Ford, 169.461 mph.

                   25. (00) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 169.065 mph.

                   26. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 169.007 mph.

                   27. (32) Corey LaJoie, Ford, 168.972 mph.

                   28. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 168.625 mph.

                   29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 168.567 mph.

                   30. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 168.244 mph.

                   31. (15) Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 168.186 mph.

                   32. (36) Matt Tifft #, Ford, 167.997 mph.

                   33. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 167.351 mph.

                   34. (77) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 165.220 mph.

                   35. (52) JJ Yeley(i), Chevrolet, 165.042 mph.

                   36. (51) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, 163.538 mph.

                   37. (27) Joe Nemechek(i), Chevrolet, 162.512 mph.

                   38. (54) Garrett Smithley(i), Chevrolet, 160.874 mph.

                   39. (66) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 159.207 mph.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 31 2019
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