It took seven months and 26 races for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to determine the sixteen drivers that will now advance to the final 10 races of the season that will eventually crown this season's title holder. Three drivers entered Sunday's race at Indianapolis with the opportunity to fill the final transfer spot into the playoffs but what is normally a very clean race ended up being one of the more intense races of the entire season.
Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Jimmy Johnson all took the green flag on Sunday knowing that they would have to drive their way into the playoff field. Johnson's only real chance of advancing was by winning and he was competitive until he got caught up in an eight-car wreck on lap 105 after a restart. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was damaged to the point that he had to take it back to the garage area which ended his day and his streak of making 15 straight NASCAR postseason's appearances.
That left Suarez and Newman to battle it out for the final spot but Suarez dug himself in a hole early in the race when he hit the outside wall. It took several pit stops for his team to get his Ford fixed with any chance of catching Newman. Once on the track he did begin to work his way back up through the field but any opportunity he had of advancing into the playoff round ended when he pitted on lap 126 and got caught a lap down when the caution flag waved shortly after for Kyle Larson's wreck. He eventually got back on the lead lap but finished 11th while Newman finished eighth which earned him the final playoff spot by four points.
The playoff field now enters Sunday's race at Las Vegas with their points being reset as each of the drivers will start with 2,000 points. Those drivers that won races, stages and finished in the top-10 in points at the end of the regular season will have an advantage as they were awarded playoff points that accumulated during the season and carries over with them throughout the playoffs up to the final race at Homestead.
Kyle Busch the regular season points champion leads the way as the playoff begins with a total of 2,045 points. He is followed by his teammates Denny Hamlin's 2,030 and Martin Truex Jr.'s 2,029 with Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick close behind with 2,028 each. Fourteen of the 16 drivers carry at least one playoff point with them into the playoffs with Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman being the only two drivers without a playoff point.
It will not take long once the green flag waves at Vegas to see just how important the playoff points will be to a driver since the first nine races are divided into three-race rounds with the lowest four drivers being eliminated after the end of the third race of the round. The Round of 16 that starts at Vegas also includes races at Richmond Raceway and the second ever race on Charlotte Motor Speedway's Roval.
That trio of tracks favors no driver as it includes Vegas' mile and a half layout followed by Richmond's short track with the transfer race taking place on Charlotte's unique road course. Last season was the first time the series had competed on Charlotte's Roval configuration that features racing on the road course section located in the infield along with using the majority of the track's oval.
One bad race in the opening round can end a driver's championship hopes unless he has earned a bevy of playoff points. The intensity and pressure will now be ratcheted up for the sixteen playoff drivers as each will only have three green flags to earn the right to continue their title chase.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.