Two races, two races are all that's left for the drivers not yet locked into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. There's no room for points racing anymore, it's all about going for a win for drivers like Daniel Suarez, Ricky Stenhouse, Paul Menard, and William Byron.
There are four drivers that are currently in the top sixteen that are not yet locked in by points. Those drivers are Denny Hamlin (+214), Aric Almirola (+165), Jimmie Johnson (+111), and Alex Bowman (+79). With a full race with max points being 60 points, we can be fairly certain that Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola will be locked into the playoffs by points come the checkered flag on Sunday at Darlington.
On the outside looking in, the first four drivers out are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-79), Ryan Newman (-91), Daniel Suarez (-93), and Paul Menard (-99). Of course, a win by any of these drivers sends Bowman out of the playoff grid, and the winner vaults up to P10 on the grid with that victory.
Out of those drivers, undoubtedly the driver with the best chance at a win with the most momentum headed to Darlington is Daniel Suarez. Suarez, with his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates practically locked in for playoff racing, heads to Darlington with likely the emphasis of the team being that this car gets into the playoffs. The next two weeks, I see Daniel Suarez running very well at the Lady in Black, as well as the Brickyard. While a early crash sidelined Suarez in this race last season, he has two third place finishes in his two Xfinity starts at Darlington, so clearly he can get around the 1 3/8 mile egg shaped oval.
In Indianapolis, Suarez ripped off a seventh place finish in his first race in a cup car at Indy, and in his two Xfinity starts, Suarez has a third and seventh place finish. In a bold opinion, Suarez will finish top five in both of these races and be in contention for a victory before we head to Vegas for the playoffs.
Out of the other three of the first four out, Ryan Newman has wins at both Darlington and Indianapolis, but he won at Darlington in 2003, and Indy in 2013. I don't expect Newman to be a threat all of a sudden for a victory, he won't make the playoffs. Luke Lambert, Newman's crew chief, is known for strategy calls, which helped them score a win at Phoenix last year. Expect some heroic calls by the veteran crew chief if the opportunity presents itself.
Paul Menard has a victory at Indianapolis, but that was his only cup win, and it was due to some fuel milage. While the 21 has shown bursts of speed here and there, I do not expect Menard to break out and get a win unless some extreme strategy comes into play.
Finally, Ricky Stenhouse has not finished better than 8th at Darlington, with all of his other finishes being outside the top ten. As for Indianapolis, there has been no finish better than sixteenth in five starts. Add to that equation that Roush Fenway just hasn't had the speed lately to contend for top ten's, let alone wins. Ricky Stenhouse will not make the playoffs in 2018, but look for him come Talladega.
With two races to go, I believe the playoff grid we see will be the playoff grid we have come Las Vegas in three weeks when we start the ten race sprint to the championship. The one sleeper that could upset the party purely based on performance is Daniel Suarez, otherwise, I think this is what we'll see come Las Vegas. It's crunch time, and I expect to see two of the best races of 2018 these next two weeks for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.