NASCAR Cup Series playoff watch: Jimmie Johnson holds key spot

Holding on to his current position in the points standings will likely send Jimmie Johnson to the playoffs. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

When Erik Jones won this past Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, he snapped a streak of seven races where the victor already had won a race this year.

That lack of winners has created a scenario where several drivers have to balance whether points matter when trying to decide on possibly making a bold move.

Alex Bowman, who has been on the playoff bubble for several weeks, admitted he needed points more than a win heading into Daytona.

"The biggest thing is just to get out of here with a good solid points day," Bowman said prior to the race Saturday. "Obviously, we are at the cutoff line right now for the playoffs, so we just can't afford to have a bad one."

As a refresher, here is how the 16-driver playoff field is set: The regular-season champion automatically gets in, then the next 15 spots are determined by the drivers with the most wins (the driver must be in the top 30 in the standings to be eligible). Any ties, including by those drivers with no victories if not all the spots are filled by winners, are broken by points.

With eight races left in the season, the key positions as far as the playoff bubble appear to be those who are 14th through 17th on the playoff grid, in order: Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Johnson's position can be considered a logical projected cutoff spot, as the likelihood of more than two drivers outside of the current top 16 winning a race is slim. The road course at Watkins Glen is the only true wild-card race left.

Here's a look at the playoff picture with eight races left in the regular season:

Locks with win

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon and Jones.

It's been five races since we first posted a playoff outlook, and only Jones has joined this group. With just eight races left in the regular season, there isn't any worry of more winners than there are spots in the 16-driver field. So, these drivers just need to start and finish in the top 30. That won't be a problem -- no driver outside the top 30 is even likely to start all of the next eight races.

Feeling great

Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin.

All four of these drivers have at least a 131-point cushion on the current cutoff. Considering the maximum number of points a non-winner can earn is 110, that's more than two races. And even if there are a couple of winners from outside the current drivers provisionally inside the cutoff, all four have at least 94 points on Elliott, who is currently 15th on the list. Larson has joined this group in the past five weeks as he has a pair of second-place finishes and a seventh over the past six races.

Keep pace and you're in

Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney.

These two drivers have continued to grind their way into potentially locking up spots before the final regular-season race at Indianapolis. Almirola has a 96-point cushion on the current cutoff, while Blaney has an 89-point cushion. They also are at least 52 points ahead of Elliott. Their only dangers are several wrecks or if there are three unexpected winners and if Johnson -- 35 points behind Blaney -- surges.

On the bubble

These three Hendrick drivers were on the bubble five weeks ago. Not much has changed. Here's a look at their chances:

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has a 54-point edge on Stenhouse. Johnson is having slightly better finishes in recent weeks, but the key is he has earned 34 stage points in the past six races. He earned 39 stage points in the first 12. If he continues to earn some stage points, he should be fine.

Chase Elliott: Finishes of 19th and 34th have Elliott with less of a cushion than he would have hoped just a few weeks ago. He's 37 points up on Stenhouse and 18 points up on Bowman, while 17 points behind Johnson. He has to avoid the bad finishes to make the playoffs.

Alex Bowman: Bowman has three consecutive top-10 finishes -- the first time this year he has even put together back-to-back top-10 finishes. He'll need at least a few more of those to make it, as he sits 19 points ahead of Stenhouse.

Biggest threats outside bubble

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: He's 19 points behind Bowman, so every point over the next several weeks will matter. His biggest issue could be he hasn't made many friends the past couple of weeks with the way he's raced, so it's unlikely he will get much help if he needs it.

Paul Menard: Menard wasn't on this list a month ago but he's hanging within sight of Bowman as he is 55 points behind. He will need to avoid crashes and bad outings, and while that's unlikely, he's enough of a veteran to make it happen.

Ryan Newman: He's 94 points behind the cutoff, but Newman is one of those drivers who can win a fuel-mileage race or use strategy and make it stick for the win.

Long shots

Daniel Suarez: Suarez has vowed that he would make the playoffs, but he's currently 108 points behind Bowman and he just hasn't led many laps -- six all year -- to make a win a realistic feat.

William Byron: He's a rookie and tied with Suarez in the points. He just needs a little more experience, but there isn't enough time to get there.

Jamie McMurray: An oil pump failure at Sonoma and an accident at Daytona in the past three weeks have put him 110 points behind Bowman. Could he win? He probably has the best shot among those in this section but it will take a perfect day in a season where nothing has gone perfect.

AJ Allmendinger: Watkins Glen is Aug. 5. That day will determine whether Allmendinger -- whose lone Cup victory came in 2014 at Watkins Glen -- makes the playoffs.

Top 30, but need miracle

Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto.

With the exception of Wallace's top-10 at Texas, these drivers haven't finished in the top 10 in a non-restrictor-plate race all year.