Every point matters.
There is a time – actually several times – during every season when that is driven home. The latest reminder came at the end of the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Clint Bowyer finished one position ahead of Daniel Suarez in seventh, but lost ground to him in the standings because of the nine stage points earned by the No. 41 in the second segment.
The proximity of those two drivers has the potential to make this one of the tightest ever points battles with two races remaining.
Wins also matter – a fact that was nearly driven home last week. With 11 laps remaining at Bristol, Matt DiBenedetto had an excellent opportunity to win and secure a spot in the playoffs. As one of the drivers outside the top 16 in points, that would have moved the cutline to the 15th position with Suarez and Bowyer 12 and 14 points out respectively.
Strategy plays a role in almost every race. The flat 2.5-mile oval of Indianapolis Motor Speedway has to potential to shake things up again because this is a track where fuel mileage has often played a role. Two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway, fantasy owners watched their rosters get decimated as several top contenders guessed wrong.
Now, what happens in two weeks if one of the drivers outside the top 16 guesses right in the Brickyard 400?
The good news is that Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 is an old school race. A caution waves and teams put on fresh tires. It will take a minor miracle to provide a unique winner from outside the top 16 – unless, of course, DiBenedetto still has a competitive chip on his shoulder.
There is a double edge to that sword, however. Because of its predictability and the difficulty of competition, the five bubble boys are going to be belly-to-the-ground and flat out. The Lady in Black has a tendency to slap drivers who are too forward when trying to win her affections.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that four of the five drivers who are most likely to be involved in the battle for 16th have been star crossed at Darlington.
Sitting 15th in the standings, Ryan Newman enters the weekend with four top-10s and a 15th in his has six attempts on the track. Let’s call him our best fantasy option as a result. Equally impressive, he has finished on the lead lap in eight of the last 10 races there and sustained crash damage only three times in 20 previous starts. The bad news is, one of those accidents came last year and it caused him to lose a lap and finish 19th.
Aric Almirola would seem to be the driver in the safest position overall. He has a 57-point advantage over Bowyer, but Darlington has not been his best track. In seven starts, he has never cracked the top 10. A best finish of 11th in 2015 is one of only two top-15s. Equally disturbing is the fact that he’s suffered problems in the last two races of this season with a 33rd at Michigan and 29th at Bristol.
Suarez and Bowyer will be competing to see who has the fewest problems.
In two starts, Suarez earned a 38th in his rookie season and a 29th last year. Bowyer has not had a Darlington top-10 since his sophomore season of 2007, has not finished in the top 15 in the past four years, and DNF’d the last two years.
With those poor records for the drivers 16th and 17th in the standings, Jimmie Johnson has an opportunity to make up significant ground. Or at least he would if he too had not been snake bitten by Darlington in the past few years. Johnson has not finished on the lead lap in this last three Darlington starts. Two of these ended in the 30s including last year’s 39th-place finish when he broke an oil pump.
The bottom line this week is this: avoid the bubble boys unless you want your Darlington roster to burst.