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Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota, takes the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel 2 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—The intensity and gamesmanship is increasing weekly with nine races remaining to set the 16-driver Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field and Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has typically provided a dramatic summer twist in this title hunt.

Twice in the last five years – including last year with Erik Jones and 2014 with Aric Almirola – winning the summer Daytona race represented a driver’s automatic entry in the Playoffs – both times the drivers jumped over several otherwise higher ranked drivers for the Playoff berth.

A solid and safe position in the standings is obviously valued, but this season especially, “safe” is difficult to come by.

Nine positions among the championship Top-16 changed just this week as a result of last Sunday’s dramatic race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Chicago race winner Alex Bowman guaranteed his Playoff spot with a victory. But the bigger shakeup happened farther down in the standings – with all 11 positions from 12th to 22nd changing in one form or another – all potentially affecting the crucial Playoff cutoff mark.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer took the biggest tumble – falling four positions from 12th to 16th in the standings after a frustrating 37th-place finish at Chicago in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

On the upside, Jimmie Johnson’s fourth place at Chicago vaulted him three positions upward in the series driver standings. Now instead of sitting one position off the cutoff in 17th — as he was before the Chicago race — he’s now 14th and looking ahead – only 15 points behind 13th place Kyle Larson.

As with Johnson, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver Larson is still looking for his first win of the 2019 season, but his runner-up finish at Chicago was good enough to move him up two positions in the standings.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who led nine laps and ran up front for much of last week’s race, also benefitted from the effort. His eighth place at Chicago places him 12th in the championship, 27 points shy of 11th place Aric Almirola – the highest standing in the series championship the second-year driver Byron has ever achieved.

On the downside, Daniel Suarez lost two championship positions – falling from 13th to 15th following a 24th place showing at Chicago. He trails 14th place Johnson by two points but holds only a three-point cushion on 16th place Clint Bowyer.

Similarly, Ryan Newman lost two places in the standings, falling from 16th to 18th. He now trails Bowyer in the last Playoff transfer position by 20 points.

KESELOWSKI SENDS MESSAGE IN FINAL CUP PRACTICE

In a final Monster Energy Series practice session that featured lap speeds approaching 206 mph, Brad Keselowski sent a message to the rest of the field.

Roughly 28 minutes into Happy Hour on Thursday, Keselowski run up on the bumper of Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, tapped the car twice and sent Byron spinning onto the apron. The incident damaged the nose of Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford and the rear of Byron’s Chevy, but Keselowski was unapologetic.

“I had a big run and (he) put me in a position where I had to lift, and I keep telling these guys I’m not lifting,” said Keselowski, who previously has taken issue with other drivers block at superspeedways. “I hate it for his team that they have to work on their car, and so does ours, but just trying to send a message that I’m not lifting.”

“I’m tired of getting wrecked at plate tracks. I’ve been wrecked out of four of the last five races, quite honestly, because I’ve let people pull moves on me like that. They’re all watching now. They know.”

After examining the damage to Byron’s car, crew chief Chad Knaus opted for a backup car. Accordingly, Byron will start from the rear of the field in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.

“I mean, it’s practice,” a frustrated Byron said after the incident. “You know, I get it, but I don’t think that was really necessary to turn us there… It’s not like I changed four lanes down the backstretch and blocked him.

“I was just kind of holding my lane, and he just used his run to drive into my left rear. That’s all right—at least I saved it.”

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