Playoff bubble growing more intense

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — Even with all the reassurances from his team that he had enough fuel, Daniel Suarez worried.

Others ahead of him had to pit in the final laps of Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway. Suarez was headed for a top-five finish … or a finish outside the top 20 if he ran out of fuel. With every point critical in his bid to make the playoffs, the final laps left Suarez on edge.

“Even when they are telling me we think you are good to go, that always makes me a little nervous,” Suarez said.

He had enough fuel and finished fifth.

Ryan Newman, also fighting for one of the final playoff spots, ran out. But he ran out of fuel off Turn 4 on the final lap and finished 12th.

Newman’s run moved him to 15th in the standings with three races left in the regular season. He has a 10-point lead on Clint Bowyer, who holds the 16th and final playoff spot.

Suarez is next, six points behind Bowyer. Jimmie Johnson, who hit the wall early, fell to 12 points behind Bowyer.

“I think it was a solid run,” Suarez said of his run. “We didn’t have a clean day. Stage 2 we’re not sure what happened there, a bad set of tires or something, but the car went from being in the top 10 to 30th. We put on a different set of tires and a little adjustment and the car was back. It wasn’t like we had a perfect day, but we were able to overcome.”

That’s what the weekend was about for Suarez. His incident in Saturday’s final practice session damaged the right rear of the car. That incident was triggered by a punctured tire.

“We were extremely lucky the way it hit,” crew chief Billy Scott said of Suarez’s crash on Saturday. “It wasn’t major damage. It was a quarter panel and bumper cover, and it actually bent the spoiler but did not damage the deck lid, and that’s a big difference.”

The team made repairs instead of going to a backup car and having to start at the rear.

“Everybody did a great job of getting it back real close,” Scott said. “I feel like the car was just as good as it was (Saturday).”

Newman continues to grind out finishes to keep him in the hunt for a playoff spot.

“We’re taking advantage of their misfortune,” crew chief Scott Graves said of the incidents that Bowyer and Johnson had. “It wasn’t the day we were hoping for or thought we would have after practice (Saturday). Because of that, it was hard to catch any track position. We had a plan, obviously, being aggressive like everyone else, trying to get some of that track position.”

Graves noted that with the problems to Bowyer and Johnson, he changed to a more conservative tactic. It worked.

Newman was 15th when the caution came out. He pitted with the field. Newman came back down pit road on the next lap to top off on fuel.

That proved to be the key call, allowing him to finish the race as he ran out instead of running out a lap earlier and losing several positions.

Others were not as fortunate. Bowyer was hit from behind by Paul Menard and sent into the wall. Bowyer finished 37th in the 38-car field.

“As soon as it happened, I was just along for the ride,” Bowyer said. “I don’t know. We have to get something figured out with these race tracks. We are really fast by ourselves, practice and qualifying really well, in the top five almost every single time but then we start the race and don’t make the grip we need to compete.

“We definitely need to find some things out. You can talk about the bubble and worrying about points, but I am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks. If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it, then what is the use? We have some things to work out. We have some time. We have some good racetracks for us including Bristol coming up. We have plenty of racing, but we have to get some things figured out.”