BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — There is very little wiggle room in the race to make NASCAR's playoffs, and as free agency hits full steam drivers are trying to secure their futures as fast as possible.
Among those on the bubble is Clint Bowyer, in the 16th and final qualifying spot and in a freefall the past two months. He was 12th in the Cup Series standings just seven races ago, but is now trying to hold off seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson heading into Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
This slide comes in a contract year for Bowyer, who doesn't have a renewal yet for his seat with Stewart-Haas Racing.
"For next year we've worked hard with what partners that we had and building those. We brought a lot of new partners on board. We're still talking to more partners. It's hard to sell," Bowyer said Friday. "You've got to be the complete package and I feel like we still are. We're still with the right organization, the right manufacturer. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. I'm still having fun. I still enjoy this. I want to race and I think we're in a good spot, I really do."
NASCAR had a flurry of activity leading into Bristol, with David Ragan announcing he will give up his ride with Front Row Motorsports next season to spend more time with his family. Then Matt DiBenedetto received "devastating" news that Leavine Family Racing won't bring him back for a second season in 2020.
The DiBenedetto release clears up a logjam for Joe Gibbs, who has too many talented drivers and not enough Cup seats. Although he has not yet announced his lineup for next season, the opening at Leavine allows Gibbs to promote Christopher Bell from the Xfinity Series to a team in which it shares a technical and manufacturer relationship. Erik Jones, in turn, can sign an extension to continue driving the No. 20 Toyota in the main Joe Gibbs Racing lineup.
The sudden movement has created uneasiness at a time when drivers are trying to lock down their spots in the playoffs. Kurt Busch, one of the nine drivers who have a guaranteed spot in the 16-driver playoffs, isn't even sure what his future holds.
He has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing but said Friday: "I don't have anything solid for next year."
The top eight drivers in the points standings have all won a race this year to ensure spots in the playoffs: Besides Busch, that is his brother, Kyle Busch, reigning series champion Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott. Alex Bowman at 10th in the standings also has a playoff spot.
But there are still seven spots available and Daniel Suarez in 17th and Johnson in 18th are lurking.
Attitudes and approaches vary heading into Bristol, one of three races remaining to complete the field. William Byron, for example, is 12th in the standings and not overly worried about getting knocked out of qualifying position.
"We have enough of a buffer to be a little more aggressive but we still have to accumulate good points," Byron said. "We can't just go out and flounder the next three races, but we've got to continue to stay the course and progress. We are very close to 10th (in points) and if we can get to 10th that would be very good for us."
Suarez, a former Xfinity Series champion, is chasing his first playoff berth in his first season with Stewart-Haas. He sits six points behind teammate Bowyer and six points ahead of Johnson, who has never missed the playoffs since its 2004 inception.
Suarez believes he is already aggressive enough on the track and doesn't plan to amp it up anytime soon. His deal with SHR has options for both the driver and the team, but getting into the playoffs might make the decisions easier.
"We just have to be smart about it and make sure we don't get too much pressure on ourselves," Suarez said. "The pressure is fine, but too much pressure doesn't help. I am always aggressive. I don't have to be more aggressive. If I am more aggressive, I am going to start making mistakes. You try to be aggressive to get one or two points and you end up losing 30, we don't want that."