Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman have tangled with each other as well as other competitors, and they are on pace for more dramatic moments Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The two drivers sit tied for the final playoff spot heading into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale. They could still make the playoffs as two spots remain open on points. In the unlikely instance a driver wins who isn’t among the 14 who already have qualified for the 16-driver field, that winning driver will earn one of the spots with one spot still available on points.
Four drivers have a shot at those final two spots on points. Clint Bowyer left Darlington Raceway last weekend eight points ahead of Suarez and Newman while Jimmie Johnson faces an uphill climb at 18 points behind.
Newman enters Indy feeling a little wronged by Suarez after Newman spun while they battled for position with 226 laps remaining Sunday at Darlington. Newman, who started the race with a 14-point cushion, saw it disappear with a 23rd-place finish. Suarez doesn’t believe he touched Newman and that Newman just got loose because of the way the aerodynamics work on the cars. Newman saw it differently.
“(It was) pretty much uncalled for,” Newman said. “It wasn’t like I was chopping him off or anything. I just got turned around.
“So I’ll put that in the old memory bank and go on.”
Newman is known for being tough to pass, and Newman’s contact with leader Matt DiBenedetto at Bristol Motor Speedway last month impacted the handling of the DiBenedetto car and possibly kept him from snatching the victory and one of the playoff spots.
“(Newman) is the reason why Matt [DiBenedetto] didn’t win Bristol,” Suarez said. “That’s the way he races. He races extremely hard.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what we are here for. But he can’t get mad when someone races him hard back.”
Both drivers also have felt the spotlight of drama this year, their first with their respective teams. Suarez had an infamous scuffle with Michael McDowell in March at the Phoenix track, while Newman received several haymakers from Bowyer in May after the NASCAR All-Star Race.
Suarez, 27, has never made the playoffs and awaits word on whether Stewart-Haas Racing is picking up his option for next year. The veteran Newman, 41, has elevated the performance of the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 car in the first year of a deal that will have him back in the seat next season.
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Ryan Newman, left, and Daniel Suarez are tied for the 16th and final playoff position entering Sunday's regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: AP and USA TODAY Sports)
Both drivers could enter Indy with a chip on their shoulder amid the memory of their Darlington battle.
“He had me sideways almost going down the straightaway, and I don’t know what I could have done any different,” Newman said. “He pretty much turned me around.”
Drivers on the bubble might not race everyone the same. In 2014, Newman shoved Kyle Larson on the final lap at Phoenix for the point he needed to advance to the championship race.
“It’s not Ryan Newman, or it’s not Clint Bowyer or it’s not Kevin Harvick. I race everyone the same,” Suarez said. “I race people the same way they race me.
“Probably 10 laps before that (contact with Newman), we were racing hard, and a couple of times he came across my nose, and right there I knew I was very close to him but I didn’t touch him.”
Bowyer controls destiny; Johnson in peril
Clint Bowyer, left, and Jimmie Johnson are each looking to claim one of the final two playoff berths. (Photo: Jim Dedmon, USA TODAY Sports)
Bowyer vaulted from outside the playoff bubble to inside with a solid day at Darlington and he has shown the most speed throughout the year. He might be the most dangerous driver among the four who could make noise if he can make the playoffs.
“To be honest with you, my eye is on making those playoffs and getting through that first round,” Bowyer said. “It’s kind of like racing on this racetrack: You’re racing that guy in front of you, but you’ve always got your eye on the guy in front of him as well.”
Qualifying likely will be important as drivers indicated they expect passing to be at a premium. The NASCAR Cup cars have about 100 more horsepower than the Xfinity cars at Indianapolis, so even though both series now will use similar aero ducts, the Cup drivers don’t expect the drafting with slingshot passing ability that has created dynamic Xfinity races the last couple of years.
Johnson, who isn’t known as a great qualifier, is the only driver to make the playoffs every year since NASCAR implemented the format in 2004.
“If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points,” Johnson said. “So it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy. But it is what it is, and we are going to go there to win a race.”
Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass.
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