NASCAR’s days of desperation
Drivers under pressure to get into postseason
Sometimes, everything can change in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in less than a second.
Entering the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, Erik Jones had one top-five finish in the previous 17 races. He was shakily in a playoff spot.
In a season in which victories have been rare for drivers not named Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., Jones appeared to be in a mix of around 20 drivers who would battle for the 10 remaining playoff spots for the Race for the Cup after the 26-race regular season.
Harvick, Busch and Truex had combined to win 13 of 17 races. Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon and Joey Logano were the only other automatic playoff qualifiers because of victories.
The way Busch, Harvick and Truex have been driving, there is a real possibility that, for the first time since NASCARinstituted the playoffs in 2004, fewer than 10 drivers would earn playoff spots from winning a regular-season race.The other playoff spots are determined by the points standings.
Jones, who had never won in his first 55 Monster Energy races and qualified for a pole position only once, was 14th in the standings but not by a secure margin. Then Saturday happened and the point standings no longer mattered for Jones.
On a wild night in Florida when only 20 of 40 cars finished and the race ran eight overtime laps, Jones, 22, passed Truex on the 168th and final lap and held on for victory by a 0.125-second margin.
Jones’ first career Monster Energy victory got him one of the coveted spots for the playoffs. The rest of the regular season still matters, but Jones is the seventh driver who knows he will at least have a shot at the Monster Energy championship.
Getting a win to secure a playoff spot is a difference maker. If playoff bids were determinedonly by the point standings Dillon, who won the season-opening Daytona 500, would not make the field.
The pressure to win a race is building. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ticked off many racers Saturday, getting credited with instigating two of the eight crashes. NASCAR had a security patrol with Stenhouse as he left the garage.
Stenhouse, who is in 17th place in the playoff standings, offered no apologies for his role in the chaos.
With eight races left, it’s not unreasonable that anyone from Aric Almirola, who is in 12th place in the standingswith a 96-point cushion from the cut line, down to Daniel Suarez, who is in 20th at 108 below the cut, could find the right combination of points gained and points missed by others to find their way into the playoffs.
Erik Jones broke through last weekend in a wild race at Daytona for his first NASCAR victory in the 56th start of his career.