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Previous Indianapolis winners Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman each need to win to make the playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images)

Playoff Pressure in Indianapolis

The final race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season will finalize this year’s playoff grid.

Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the last chance for drivers outside the 16 currently on the playoff grid to qualify for the postseason. Alex Bowman has a 68-point advantage in the final playoff spot meaning anyone outside the current grid in the top 30 in points has to win Sunday to crash the party.

Monster Energy Cup Series Standings

“I always enjoy coming back to Indy since I didn’t live too far from the speedway for about a year when I raced Sprint Cars,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the man next in the standings behind Bowman. “We have one more chance to get in to the playoffs. Indy has been a difficult track for me at times.

“I know everyone at Roush Fenway Racing is working really hard on our cars for this weekend. It’s cool to have John Deere back on our Ford at IMS. Pit strategy usually comes into play. This is our last chance. We have to win to get in.”

Three drivers entered in the race needing a win to get into the playoff picture are former Indianapolis race winners; Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman. Last year’s winner Kasey Kahne is sitting out the race because of heat exhaustion (Read More).

Indianapolis Race Winners

Newman’s 2013 Brickyard victory remains a career highlight for the Indiana native. A second win might be even more meaningful since it would carry with it a spot in the playoff field.

“I guess to be able to go back and defend something is special,” Newman said. “I have an opportunity to go back and add my name again to a trophy that’s hard to win once, let alone, twice. Plus, we’d be in the playoffs.”

McMurray’s 2010 Indy win came during a period in the veteran’s career when he built a reputation for winning at some of the sport’s most iconic tracks including Daytona and Charlotte. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has not had the best overall year but he plans on going on all out on Sunday with so much on the line.

“This is a special place to race and having the chance to kiss the bricks is an amazing experience,” McMurray said. “It is always cool to come back to the Brickyard, it is such a unique track. Being able to carry speed off the corners both the front and backstretch, along with the short-chutes is key to trying to make passes on a track that is really difficult to pass on.

“I look forward to having a strong run and hopefully be in position at the end to race our way in the Playoffs.”

For Menard, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, Indianapolis holds an extra special place in his heart.

“Every time I drive into the track there it gives me goose bumps,” Menard said. “It’s exciting. Being a driver at Indy is the coolest thing in the sport.”

He attended races there as a youngster, tagging along with his father John Menard, a veteran car owner who fielded entries in the Indianapolis 500 for a Who’s Who list of drivers including Gary Bettenhausen, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Danny Ongais and Tony Stewart.

Menard won the 2011 edition of the Brickyard as a member of Richard Childress Racing. He would like nothing more than to make a repeat trip to Victory Lane on Sunday and believes taking part in a recent Goodyear test might prove to be beneficial.

“I feel like we learned some things that will apply,” Menard said. “It was hot and rainy at the test, and it’s looking like the weather will be similar this weekend although a little cooler.”

McMurray, Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez also participated in the test in June.