Battle on the bubble continues after Bristol

Terrin Waack

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Mere inches, maybe even centimeters, saved Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez from colliding and crashing.

On Lap 244 of 500 Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer thought he was clear to take the bottom lane. He wasn‘t. A baby tap from another driver sent Bowyer spinning up the race track. Somehow, someway, Bowyer righted himself before making contact with Suarez, who was running up top.

“I don‘t even know,” Suarez said. “Probably, I‘m a little lucky. Probably, I‘m a little good. It worked out. It was pretty tight. I was lucky that Clint has the experience and was able to keep his car out of the wall. There was just enough room for me.”

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And now Suarez has just enough points to sit in the 16th and final playoff spot in the championship standings, actually bumping Bowyer out of the slot and into 17th.

Thing is, Suarez ended the Bristol Night Race in eighth. Bowyer was seventh. Suarez, though, accumulated more overall points (38) thanks to his second-place Stage 2 finish. That alone gave him a nine-point boost and was ultimately the reason he had more than Bowyer‘s final mark of 30.

“I feel like that was probably the biggest thing of the day,” Suarez said. “I feel like that was an amazing call from my crew chief, Billy Scott. We just have to keep making those decisions.”

How the numbers would play out were the last thing on Bowyer‘s mind during the 266.5-mile race.

“You‘re not worried about that,” Bowyer said. “A short track like this, you‘re worried about keeping up with the race track, keeping up with your adjustments, track and stuff like that. You ain‘t got time to screw with that.”

That‘s for next week, or maybe the one after that. Only two races remain in the regular season.

Just two points (591 vs. 589) separate Suarez and Bowyer on the cutline, a tighter race than the six-point difference entering Bristol.

RELATED: Full Bristol results | Look at standings

Others on the bubble are 15th Ryan Newman (603 points) and 18th Jimmie Johnson (565 points). Neither moved in ranks from last week. Both finished outside the top 10 this week.

Newman was 11th and gained 34 points (eight stage points). Johnson wound up 19th and added 18 points.

“I have to look at the truth inside of this team and how strong this team is, how good this team is,” Johnson said. “I know the results are coming. It‘s just a series of bad luck, and it all started with a bad qualifying effort. We have to clean things up for sure. This team is really starting to jell and come along.”

Johnson qualified 30th.

The seven-time Monster Energy Series champion is on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. He has won three times at Darlington Raceway, where the Cup Series heads after its off-week, and four times at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the regular-season finale.

“It‘s so hard to predict,” Johnson said. “These are two great tracks for me, two places that I love. We‘ll see what happens.”

RELATED: Recap Bristol in 76 seconds

Nine drivers have solidified their postseason berth with a trip to Victory Lane. Any more repeat winners would leave the other seven vacancies open to points.

Newman has a top five and eight top 10s. Suarez has three and nine, respectively. Bowyer has five and 10. Johnson has three and eight.

Each could use anything in the win column.

“Things aren‘t going our way,” Bowyer said. “But a lot of them can be helped, just like tonight. It wasn‘t a lack of trying on anybody‘s part.”

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