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Playoff spots, job security on line at Bristol tonight

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

BRISTOL, Tenn. — 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 tonight’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.