NASCAR Enters The Home Stretch
By Bob Pockrass
NASCAR drivers have 10 races left before the playoff field is set.
If you ask most drivers or teams, they’ll say nine.
A race at Daytona International Speedway is scheduled to end the regular season, and no driver wants his playoff prospects to come down to that race, one where crashes are common and upsets are possible.
So that is why Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola can breathe a little easier now than five races ago. He held just a 16-point edge on the 17th place driver (16 drivers make the playoff field) after Martinsville, but with five consecutive top-5 finishes, Almirola has a 111-point cushion and sits 9th in the standings with 10 races left in the regular season.
“One of the high priority goals for me when I saw the schedule come out for this year was to make Daytona not matter,” Almirola said. “I want to go to Daytona and not have that anxiety or that pressure to either have to get into the playoffs or that you have just a slight points cushion and you’re trying to be conservative and preserve.
“But then you are worried about guys behind you in points collecting a lot of stage points from being aggressive and/or winning the race [and that's] just not a place I want to be in.”
“It’s a shame – it’s kind of the story of our season,” Jones said. “We’ve just had a rough year, and things are just not going our way.
“Hopefully, we can just turn it around, keep bringing fast cars and have things turn around for us.”
Jones said during the Pocono weekend that he wasn’t looking at the points.
“I think we're so much better than that that it doesn't really even play into my mind,” he said. “I know if we just kind of do what we need to do, things will kind of work out.
“It's not really even a question in my mind at this point, making the playoffs or not. I feel like we'll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two somewhere I don't think that's really in my mind.”
He might want to keep it out of his mind. The 10-races-to-go mark typically is a strong barometer of who will make the playoffs. The 16-driver field consists of the regular-season champion plus 15 drivers based on the number of wins, with ties broken by points. Typically, at least a few spots go to winless drivers based on points.
Since the elimination playoff system started in 2014, no driver outside of the cutoff by more than four points made the playoffs without a win.
Last year at this time, Jones was 18th, five points behind the cutoff. He worked his way inside the bubble and won at Darlington to clinch a spot. Daniel Suarez, 31 points ahead of the cushion after 10 races, ended up missing the cut.
“At some point you have to adjust your strategy based on where you sit and what you need,” Jones crew chief Chris Gayle said last week. “Unfortunately, we’re sitting in the same bubble spot where we were about this time last year ... Fortunately, we’ve been through it.
“We lived through this last year. We knew we had to bear down and get 30 points a week and get ourselves back in contention, so I think that gives us all a little more confidence we can go do that.”
In 2018, no driver went from being in playoff position with 10 races left to not making the playoffs.
From 2015-2017, two drivers each year went from outside the bubble into the playoffs, and that includes three drivers who needed wins to get in – Kasey Kahne at Indianapolis in 2017, Chris Buescher at Pocono in 2016 (Kyle Larson also was outside the cutoff and won, but probably would have been good on points), and then Kyle Busch in several races after missing the first 11 events because of a broken leg suffered in Daytona.
The most points a driver has gone from being in the playoffs to out is Kasey Kahne, who had a 53-point cushion in 2015 (prior to the points system that included stages with a 60-point maximum instead of a 48-point maximum in a race).
This year’s playoff picture: Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are locked in with multiple wins, and Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman are locked in as long as there aren’t more than 16 winners.
The drivers ahead of Jones and currently to the good as far as points are Almirola (111-point cushion), Kyle Busch (107), Kurt Busch (103), Matt DiBenedetto (59), Clint Bowyer (56), William Byron (38), Jimmie Johnson (36) and Austin Dillon (6).
Johnson missed the Brickyard and likely will miss the race next Sunday at Kentucky after testing positive for COVID-19. He saw his cushion drop by 27 points in missing the Brickyard, obviously helped by the Jones crash.
“I think our cars are way faster than a 16th‑place team ... Three, four more races just running strong like we need to, get some stage points, we'll be up in the top-12 pretty quickly,” Jones said.
Xfinity: Briscoe wins at home
Chase Briscoe, an Indiana native, won the inaugural Xfinity race Saturday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.vHe won it with a dynamic move to pass AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric as they battled for the lead late in the race.
"Obviously it is not the same prestige as winning on the oval, but you still won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Briscoe said. "It doesn't matter if you are racing on the oval, the road course, the dirt track or even the parking lot, it is special when you win here.
"Growing up, coming here all the time, it is unbelievable to think that I just won here."
On The Air
Xfinity Shady Rays 200 (Kentucky), 8 p.m., FS1
Xfinity Alsco 300 (Kentucky), 8 p.m., FS1
Gander RV Outdoors Trucks Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 (Kentucky), 6 p.m., FS1
Cup Quaker State 400 (Kentucky), 2:30 p.m., FS1
Stat of Note
The two oldest drivers in the Brickyard 400 field – Harvick, 44, and Matt Kenseth, 48 – finished 1-2.
They Said It
“We’re healthy and hope to stay that way, but a 9 and a 6-year old have to try and manage the fear right now and they can’t come around mom or dad. And we’re got to feed them, and we’re concerned about feeding them and passing the virus. So we’re trying to be as healthy as we can, but on the home front with our kids, we’re heartbroken right now to see the fear in their eyes and watching them trying to manage what’s going on right now.” – Jimmie Johnson after he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19