Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:57 AM

Big Machine Vodka 400

Let’s look at Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same sense as we look at game 163 for teams in MLB’s regular season. It’s a do-or-die situation with a playoff berth looming.

Four drivers are separated by just 26-points vying for the final two playoff spots to complete the 16 driver field for the 10-race playoffs which begins next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The pressure is on, and it will be the most entertaining part of Sunday’s race aside from rooting in my wagers to win.

The driver with the upper hand is Clint Bowyer who is sitting 15th in the standings only 8-points ahead of 16th-place. He came through huge last week with a sixth-place at Darlington and came through with a fifth-place at Indy last season.

“It’s all lining up to be a really big weekend, between racing at a place like Indianapolis and for as high of stakes as we are racing for,” Bowyer said.

“It’s pretty clear cut what we have to do if we want to get into the playoffs. We are confident. We ran well at Indy last year and we’ll need to do it again. This is what the playoff format was designed to do. I mean, I wish we were more secure, but it’s going to be a hell of a show with a bunch of us racing hard to get in.”

Bowyer has been bumped up to 40/1 odds to win this week just because his goal is expected to cautious and conservative around the track to outpoint, or stay ahead of those other three he’s racing with even though a win would automatically qualify him for the playoffs.

The battle I’m most excited to see is Daniel Suarez-Ryan Newman II, the finale, or a continuation from last week at Darlington when Suarez tapped Newman out the way. Suarez finished 11th, Newman finished 23rd which has them tied in the standings at 16th-place. Newman vowed a payback. Suarez says he racing the field, and not just Newman.

“I’m racing those 39 people because of stage points and everything that is involved with that,” said Suarez who is 40-to-1 to win. “At the same time, I’m obviously tied with someone to make it into the playoffs. It’s one of those deals where you have to focus on your race and try and get the most points for yourself, but at the same time you’re always wondering where that other guy is.”

Newman is definitely a driver Suarez ought to pay attention to and stay away as far as possible from him because Newman never forgets. With it being all on the line and near the end of his career, Newman an Indiana native and 2013 Brickyard 400 winner, will seize the moment.

“We know what we have to do entering this weekend,” Newman said. “We’ve shown all season we have a lot of fight and we don’t give up, so we’re going to continue that at Indy. Going back home to Indiana is always special for me and is a place that has been good to us over the years. We’re going to give it everything we have this weekend in our Acorns Ford.”

Newman is 100-to-1 to win Sunday and while I don’t recommend the bet, I do respect that he’s finished 12th or better in seven of his last eight Indy starts. He was 10th last season and third in 2017.

Jimmie Johnson sits 18th in points, 18-points behind 16th place. He needs a lot of help and knows it.

“There is some pressure to go out and win this weekend, but that is what we do every weekend,” said Johnson who is 60-to-1 to win Sunday. “We go to a track with the intention to contend for wins. If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. It’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy, but that is where we are right now. It’s a great track to win at. We know what we have to do this weekend.”

Johnson has four wins at Indy, but if the seven-time Cup Champion doesn’t make the playoffs it’ll be the first time in his amazing career that he’s missed the postseason.

Those four drivers will be the main storyline Sunday, but let’s talk about the four drivers I like to actually win the race.

First up is Erik Jones (8/1) fresh off his first win of the season last week at Darlington which gives Joe Gibbs Racing 13 wins in 25 races in 2019. He was runner-up at Indy last year and the most important factor to garner my supports this week is finishing third at Pocono in June and runner-up at Pocono in July.

Indy and Pocono are both 2.5-mile tracks, with Indy being a rectangle and Pocono being a triangle, but it’s the long straightaways that make them similar. The flat turn 3 at Pocono also requires a similar set-up for the four flat turns at Indy. If a driver does well on one they’re likely to do well on the other.

Kyle Larson (12/1) might be the best value on the board because of how consistent his team has been using the race package with aero ducts on the car and engines producing 550 horsepower. No win yet, other than the non-points All-Star race using the same package, but in the last five point races using it he’s captured a top-five finish bookended with runner-ups at Chicago and Darlington. He was fifth at Pocono in July.

Denny Hamlin had his top-five streak stopped at six straight races last week at his best track (Darlington), but he won the last Pocono race which should give him an edge this week with fresh set-up notes. He’s tied for the series lead with wins (4) and top-five finishes (13). He’s also had top-fives in four of his last five Indy starts. It’s a surprise that he hasn’t won at indy yet because of being so good at Pocono and just about every flat track on the circuit.

Kevin Harvick (6/1) won the 2003 Brickyard 400 when he drove for Richard Childress Racing and his 9.3 average finish is the best among all active drivers. But since he’s been with Stewart-Haas Racing he’s had a 5.5 average finish between five Indy starts. He won his first two races of 2019 within the past six races, but what I like his chances this week was leading a race-high 62 laps at Pocono in July before settling for sixth-place.

The best longshot of the race might be William Byron at 40/1 odds in the famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet which won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Jeff Gordon drove it to a track record five wins. Hendrick has always had a great set-up for Indy winning 10 of the 25 races. Four of those wins were by Johnson and his former crew chief Chad Knaus is Byron’s current crew chief. I was impressed by Byron’s fourth-place finish at Pocono in July and expect him to be very competitive Sunday.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Erik Jones (8/1)
2) #42 Kyle Larson (12/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (3/1)

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