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Darlington Clash Brightens Spotlight on Newman, Suarez in Battle for Final Playoff Spot

One all-important weekend later, the pointed words haven’t changed between Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman.

But now’s not the time to dwell on how Newman spun out after a close call with Suarez in the Southern 500 last Sunday night at Darlington. The reality is both drivers are in 16th place and Suarez holds the tiebreaker, with the final two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff spots to be decided in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That said, Newman didn’t mince words when Darlington was broached Saturday afternoon at IMS.

“Are you saying I made contact with him or he made contact with me?” he asked a reporter, who described the incident as “contact” because replays didn't definitely show if the cars actually touched.

The reporter clarified he didn’t say who made contact with whom. Newman flashed an amused smirk, then continued.

“That’s racing. That’s racing,” he said. “But this is what I said afterwards. Everything kind of cycles in our sport. What goes around, comes around. It is what it is. I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he turned me around. It’s just racing. I get it. … I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best for my team.”

If nothing else, Suarez agreed with the “racing” comment.

“It was just racing,” he said. “By the way, there was no contact. It was just racing. It happened to be him, but it could have happened with anyone, you know?

“He’s a very aggressive driver, one of the most, and I’m not saying that – people know that. And I’m the same way. Sometimes, we race hard and sometimes we know what the limits are, and sometimes we push a little hard to do something. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him. Unfortunately, it ended up him spinning out. But like I said, there was no contact. It was just aggressive racing, something we do every week.”

How the big picture is impacted by the Brickyard matters more than any of that. Suarez’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, is in 15th place. He, too, is hoping for a strong race to clinch his place. And all three contenders are keeping an eye on seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is in 18th position but has won four Brickyards and would clinch a spot if he prevailed again.

Newman, the 41-year-old Hoosier native who won the 2013 Brickyard, vowed to enjoy this homecoming, which in addition to seeing family and friends also included racing a Silver Crown car at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway.

Unlike Suarez, a 27-year-old driver from Mexico trying to make the Playoffs for the first time, Newman has been on both sides of this pressure. He barely missed the Playoffs in each of the previous three years after barely making it and finishing 11th in 2015. He finished a career-best second in the points while driving for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

“I think I’m like one level beyond veteran now,” Newman said. “I think that I’m like senior veteran because not only have I been around the sport a long time, I’ve experienced the pushes and pulls, the ups and downs of the Playoffs, making your way in and racing your way in, and not making it and making it. It’s a great opportunity to go out and have fun.”

Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford ranked 22nd in Saturday’s second practice. Suarez’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford ranked 27th. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was highest among the top contenders in 17th. Bowyer’s No. 23 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford ranked 23rd.

“We have to control what we can control,” Suarez said. “I cannot control where Newman finishes. I cannot control where Bowyer or Johnson finishes. That’s something I can’t control. The only thing I can control is myself, and I have to try to put myself in the best position in the race, and takes points and finishing the race in a good position so we can make it. But I cannot control their result.”

Suarez was asked about if this situation is like 2016, when he was racing for Joe Gibbs Racing and pursuing a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in the season-ending race at Homestead. He won the race to celebrate the title.

“Yes, it feels similar,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend. I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. Like I’ve said before, I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I’ve been that way since I was racing go-karts.

“This weekend has a similar perspective. We have three guys that we have to beat.”

The young driver didn’t seem too affected by the pressure. The first Mexican-born driver in NASCAR’s highest level of competition already has made history to reach this point. While a first Cup win has eluded him, he became the first from his country to capture a pole, at Pocono, where he finished a career-best second in July.

Suarez gushed about not just what it would mean to make the Playoffs but also how he’s always dreamed of kissing the famed Yard of Bricks after a Brickyard victory. If anything, he sounds like he’s reveling in this spotlight.

“In my personal opinion, it’s more fun,” he said. “There’s more attention to me. As you can see, I’m here talking to you guys. It’s part of it. I try to have fun with it and try to go out there and do my thing.

“More than nerves, I feel excited. I really feel excited when I come into this place, knowing the history that this place has and all the amazing drivers, all of the legends. You know this place has a lot of history. Just to be able to race here is something really cool. But it doesn’t end there. As a racing driver, you always want more. You want to be able to be successful in this amazing place.”

Newman has always shared that appreciation, and his history of strong IMS runs extends beyond that victory six years ago. He finished third in 2017, seventh in 2012, 10th last year and 11th in 2014 and 2015.

“We just need to go out there and do our job, try to win and if we can’t, try to take the best position we can take,” Newman said, “and keep in mind we’re racing for something more than just one race. We’re racing for the next 10.”

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