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The race to make the Cup playoffs is going down to the wire

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The race to make the Cup playoffs is going down to the wire
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Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski seem to be involved in many battles for the win of late in NASCAR, but there’s another battle going down to the wire – the race to make the 16-driver Cup Series playoff field.

Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Rush Truck Centers
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang DEKALB, Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally Fueling Futures
Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford Mustang Menards/FVP
Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford Mustang Motorcraft/Quick Lane
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Axalta
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Axalta
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Toyota Camry
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing, Reser's Fine Foods Toyota Camry, crew chief Chris Gayle
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro, Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Mustang, crash

A weekend featuring a doubleheader of Cup races at Michigan International Speedway has helped to shore up a couple drivers fighting to make the playoff field on points while others took a hit to their hopes.

While Clint Bowyer didn’t score a victory this weekend, his performance at Michigan – especially in Sunday’s race which included a Stage 1 win – helped him collect a lot of points.

Bowyer and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team now sits 60 points above the cutoff to make the playoff field, a solid margin which should be good enough to make it so long as he can maintain consistent decent finishes.

Close behind him is Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers No. 21 team, 57 points above the cutoff. Outside of a wreck at Kansas, DiBenedetto has managed solid consistent results the past several weeks.

“We’ve been running great, running up front very consistently, so we know we definitely deserve every bit of getting in the playoffs, so we’ll just keep fighting and doing what we’re doing and trying to rack up some points and build up that cushion,” DiBenedetto said.

“Hopefully, a win comes. That would obviously be the best way, but only a few races left so consistency is key. A weekend like this just making sure that we finish and run smart and don’t get caught up in any mess – things like that – is all so crucial to try and get all we can to make sure we make the playoffs and then hit it hard.”

On the bubble

William Byron is currently the final driver that would make it in the playoff field on points. He sits 26 points above the cutoff line.

In his last four races, Byron has finished no worse than 14th but also no better than 10th including a 14th and 12th in the Michigan doubleheader.

While not necessary losing ground, Byron definitely could use some stronger performances – particularly stage points – to help expand his margin over Erik Jones, who would be the first driver out.

“After this weekend we came out of Michigan with a bit larger of a points gap than we started which is good. Hopefully, we can go on to the road course at Daytona and keep building that point buffer,” Byron said.

“I think we’re really good at road courses so hopefully we can run well there despite it being an unknown. I’m looking forward to it, though, and the challenge it will bring.”

Jones finished 11th in Saturday’s race at Michigan and was running strong Sunday until a mechanical issue in the last stage relegated him to a 27th-place finish.

Jimmie Johnson on the outside looking in

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is tied with Jones, both 26 points outside the playoff grid. Tyler Reddick is next, 36 points out.

Of course, a win in the next four races would allow any of the “bubble” drivers to secure a playoff berth regardless of their points position.

The remaining schedule provides several opportunities for those drivers – and even those not close to making the field on points – to win their way into the playoffs and in some unpredictable environments.

Four races remain before the playoffs – the Daytona road course, a doubleheader at Dover, Del., and the regular season finale on the oval at Daytona.

The Cup series has never competed on the Daytona road course, leaving that race wide-open and the season finale on the oval has the potential to produce a surprise winner, like any superspeedway race.

Dover may offer Johnson his best chance for a win, being that he has a record 11 victories there, including his most recent win in the series in 2017.

Harvick completes a sweep of Michigan Cup Series doubleheader

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Series NASCAR Cup
Author Jim Utter