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Opinion: Playoff Payoff

Just three races remain in the regular season and things are tight among a group of drivers looking to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field.

After last Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, the battle in and around the cut line intensified. Erik Jones is relatively safe now 70 points ahead of the 16th and final transfer spot in the standings. But the Joe Gibbs Racing pilot is about the only one who can sleep easily through the next trio of races at Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis.

Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson are the quartet trying to maneuver their way into what amounts to just a pair of berths available. A win by any or a driver even further down in the standings for that matter locks up an automatic spot.

Here’s an overview of each as they fight for their playoff lives:

Ryan Newman (+16)
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is doing what he has done so well over the course of his recent career and that is bring home consistent finishes. Newman’s 12th-place Michigan run wasn’t spectacular by any means but it was enough to get the job done and take advantage of an opportunity to put a little breathing room on the board. Newman comes to Bristol this weekend after a ninth-place spring finish at the track and if he can maintain that down the middle of the fairway approach the rest of the regular season a playoff spot will be in hand.

Clint Bowyer (+5)
Bowyer called this year a roller coaster season but lately there have been many more downs than ups. He suffered another frustrating outing in Michigan when he was involved in an incident that led to a 37th-place finish and dropped him to a very precarious spot in the standings. Bowyer and his team have to somehow figure out a way to stay out of problems, something that has plagued them frequently, to have any shot at hanging on to his current position in the standings. The way things have gone that seems easier said than done.

Daniel Suarez (-6)
The other Stewart-Haas Racing driver in this playoff fight is trending in a much better direction than Bowyer. Suarez turned in an impressive top-five Michigan run to put himself squarely in the picture and appears to be close to perhaps even challenging for a first career Cup Series win. He finished eighth at Bristol in the spring, which bodes well for a potential good outing this Saturday night that would keep Suarez in the discussion for at least another week.

Jimmie Johnson (-12)
Just when it looked like Johnson might break out of the funk that has plagued him for what seems like close to two seasons, he fell right back into the muck during most of the summer stretch. Things hit nearly rock bottom at Michigan when an early race incident damaged Johnson’s car and dropped him at one point eight laps behind the leader. He is close to Hail Mary time and it will be up to new crew chief Cliff Daniels, the Hendrick organization and Johnson himself to figure out a way to put together three consecutive solid races or for the first time in NASCAR Playoff history the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet will not be part of the post-season.