RELATED: Chase Grid " Chase bubble watch " Chase Fest details A year ago, it was Kasey Kahne . Only two races remained before the start of the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , and the Hendrick Motorsports driver was 13th in points . Unfortunately, he was outside the top 16 in the Chase standings. Kyle Busch , Denny Hamlin , AJ Allmendinger , Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola trailed Kahne in points . But they were among those that had wins. They had invitations to the dance. At the time, Kahne had managed only two top-five finishes. His average finishing position was 16.8. He hadn't been to the victory lane since midway through the previous season. So he and his team went out and won at Atlanta Motor Speedway . It earned Kahne one of the final Chase spots and the No. 5 team a second chance. It wasn't quite as easy as it sounds. Kevin Harvick , as was often the case, was dominant at AMS. Kahne fell a lap down early. The team battled back. He didn't take the lead for the first time until Lap 303 of the scheduled 325-lap race. Suddenly, he seemed to be on his way to the win. Then cautions appeared, forcing two late restarts. Green, white, checkered late. Kahne's lead was lost on pit road. Yet somehow he muscled his way past Matt Kenseth coming to the white flag, holding on for the win and a spot in the Chase . It's a similar position for the 35-year-old this year. Two races remain -- stops at Darlington Raceway and Richmond International Raceway -- before the field is finalized for this year's 10-race run to determine the Sprint Cup champion. Kahne is once again winless. He is not alone. Teammate Jeff Gordon has finished inside the top five only three times this year. The four-time champion is ahead of Clint Bowyer in the playoff picture, with a wider margin back to folks such as Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle . A year ago Gordon had three wins and a vise-like grip on first place in the points . Bowyer's got a pair of top-fives, but much of the attention around the No. 15 team of Michael Waltrip Racing centers on where Bowyer will call home next season. Paul Menard has a razor-thin lead on Gordon in points , but taking nothing for granted. Can anyone? Matt Kenseth 's blown engine at Bristol last week, leaving the Joe Gibbs driver 42nd in the final rundown, didn't go unnoticed. Things not only can happen, they often do. With 10 drivers already secure -- 11 if you go ahead and give Kyle Busch one of the spots although he's close enough to the fault line that a misstep could make things interesting -- and two races remaining, at least three of this year's Chase spots will be filled based on the points standings after Richmond. It could be five, if no new winner emerges in the next two weeks. Few on the fringes, though, have shown signs of contending for wins. Almirola? One top five and only three laps led this season. Biffle? It's shaping up to be the wrong type of career year for the Roush Fenway Racing driver, with just two top-fives and an average finish of 20th. Austin Dillon ? Kyle Larson ? Both have shown potential. Both are winless. Kahne? Well, who knows? The question isn't can it be done. Kahne's already proven that it's possible. The question is who among those can pull it off?
Photo credit -- Chase Elliott 's Instagram @chaseelliott9 RELATED: Series standings At only 19 years old, Chase Elliott already has a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship, is currently contending for a second one and has a pretty sweet job lined up next year taking over the iconic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for retiring four-time Sprint Cup Series champ Jeff Gordon . Not only has Elliott's racing career taken off, he has too -- literally -- having just earned his private pilot license on July 23. And the view from above is something he's wanted his whole life. It seems Elliott got more than the racing gene from his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott , as he has inherited the flying bug from his dad, an accomplished and avid aviator. "He's been flying a long time so I've always been around it since I was little," Elliott said of his father. "I've watched him fly for years and years and been fortunate enough to have access to his planes and sit up front and watch him fly them so I've always definitely interested in it. "It's one of those things where the more you do it, the more you become interested in it. And the more you get into it, the more intriguing it becomes. I learn something new every time I fly. "It's definitely tough to (master all the necessary lessons). A lot of things come along with it. But flying is a privilege and something you can't take lightly ever." A lot of the same traits -- discipline, smarts and dedication -- Elliott put into his burgeoning racing career he used to earn the pilot license. He actually started taking lessons while still in high school but it was such a busy time between school, racing and flying lessons that Elliott put off finishing his license until a few months ago with the support of his dad. "It's something you work hard for to achieve," Bill Elliott said. "I see so many people who have gone through a lot of the flying part and the learning curve but never went on and got their pilot licenses and they always regretted it. I told Chase , 'You need to go on and get this done.' "I'm glad he did. That's something he'll carry with him regardless of where racing takes him." The Elliotts join an impressive list of NASCAR drivers who have secured private pilot licenses including Carl Edwards , Greg Biffle , Matt Kenseth and retired drivers Mark Martin , Rusty Wallace, Cale Yarborough and Ricky Rudd. Ryan Newman 's wife Krissie flies helicopters. Similarly, Elliott figures having the ability to pilot an airplane can be as much a practicality as it is a luxury. His father helped secure him a Cessna 182 single-engine, four-seater to use and Elliott is eager to start flying to races closer than home. Last week, he flew to Bristol. He has also posted a photo of himself practicing grass landings on Instagram. "Absolutely, it's a major convenience if you need to go somewhere, you can turn a four-hour drive into an hour-and-a-half flight," Elliott said. "Time is valuable for anybody and any chance to make up time like that is great." Elliott wasn't sure if he would fly himself to this weekend's XFINITY Series race at Road America , but he is looking forward to the stand-alone road race regardless. It's the third road course race in the last four weeks for the series and Elliott is one of the series regulars who embraces the opportunity to turn right. He is on a six-race run of top-10 finishes in his No. 9 NAPA Chevy and currently trails championship leader Chris Buescher by 23 points in the standings. He has finishes of seventh (Watkins Glen) and fifth (Mid-Ohio) in the two road races this year and finished fourth at Road America last season. "I thought last year was a good learning experience," Elliott said. "I was really pleased with Watkins Glen. I'm still learning on my end, but thought we had good cars this year and that's a big step in right direction." For Elliott, that direction is up.
RELATED: Chase Grid " Updated standings Only five races remain before the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set. Here are the scenarios for clinching a Chase berth at Watkins Glen: Below is the complete list of drivers currently in the Chase Grid. Drivers who have clinched a spot in the Chase : 1. Jimmie Johnson 2. Kevin Harvick 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr . 4. Matt Kenseth 5. Kurt Busch Drivers who need one more win to secure a spot in the Chase (this group can also clinch a spot if there is a repeat winner this weekend): 6. Joey Logano 7. Martin Truex Jr . 8. Brad Keselowski 9. Denny Hamlin 10. Carl Edwards Drivers currently in the Chase based on points : 11. Jamie McMurray 12. Jeff Gordon 13. Paul Menard 14. Ryan Newman 15. Clint Bowyer 16. Kasey Kahne Information provided by NASCAR IMC.
RELATED: Full race results " Updated series standings " Chase Grid BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Luck wasn't with Clint Bowyer 's No. 15 Toyota at Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway -- at least not good luck. "(Expletive.) Just about my luck," Bowyer said after the Michael Waltrip Racing driver got the worst of a snarled restart on Lap 126. Carl Edwards spun his wheels, causing slowing on the restart after a debris caution. Part of the reaction to that was Ryan Newman 's No. 31 Chevrolet making slight contact with the No. 15, sending Bowyer's speedy ride up into the outside wall then back across the track and hard backward into the pit road wall. At that point, Bowyer had led a lap and was in the top five most of the day. Told that Newman didn't mean to hit him, Bowyer responded, "I know. The 2 (of Brad Keselowski ) came up loose and out of control; I had to move up. It wasn't (Newman's) fault. … (Expletive) stupid." The rear suspension took a hard hit, sending the car to the garage, where the No. 15 team worked on bent control arms and a tough-to-repair right-side suspension. "Man, I'm sorry guys. I couldn't save it. Good track for us," Bowyer radioed to his team as he kept coming back to pit road to try to fix a troublesome right front that was causing tire rubs. Bowyer began the day 16th out of 16 drivers in the Chase Grid, 50 points ahead of Aric Almirola . That cushion quickly evaporated and shrunk to 23 when the race concluded with Bowyer in 41st place. "We ain't quitting now. We have three races to go," Bowyer said after he was given the option to retire from the race at Lap 183 because the team had no opportunity to gain any more positions with just 17 laps to go.
After wrecking out of the race for the second straight week at Watkins Glen and falling off the 16-driver Chase Grid last Sunday, Kasey Kahne knows what he has to do to make NASCAR's playoffs -- the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . "At this rate we’re going to need to win," Kahne said. "That's the only way we'll go into the Chase . We've got to get a little better. I need to get a little better." Kahne has four races left to get that win, starting with Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports driver claims one victory at Michigan (June 2006) and believes he can adapt well to the high-drag track-specific rule package that will be used there this weekend. "There were times at Indianapolis when we were really quick with that package," Kahne said. "I know they’re working hard to bring a little less drag and more downforce there for us, all four of us (at Hendrick Motorsports ). So hopefully we can run good at Michigan and maybe get a win there." Kahne finds himself in a similar position to where he was last year prior to the Chase . Too low in points to qualify without a victory, Kahne won the second-to-last race of the season at Atlanta to punch his ticket into NASCAR’s postseason. While Michigan is not Kahne’s best track historically, he has proven he can win at a variety of loops, with victories at 11 different venues including short and intermediate tracks and road courses. "The main thing is that all of the equipment we get at Hendrick Motorsports is good enough to win every weekend," Kahne said. "We need to get on the ball here and do that, and I don’t see any better weekend to do that than the next one."
RELATED: Chase Grid post-Bristol No drivers clinched a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth in the IRWIN Tools Night Race on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. That means 10 drivers are locked into a postseason spot, provided they attempt to qualify for the two remaining regular-season races. Here's a look at the bubble for the six available Chase spots. 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Already clinched: Jimmie Johnson , Matt Kenseth , Kevin Harvick , Joey Logano , Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kurt Busch , Martin Truex Jr ., Brad Keselowski , Denny Hamlin , Carl Edwards Note: Kyle Busch has four wins and is currently second in the Chase Grid, but has not clinched a spot in the top 30 of the points standings. On the bubble Note: Positions below are for the Chase Grid, not Sprint Cup standings 12. Jamie McMurray +41 ( points ahead of 16th-place) 13 . Ryan Newman +28 14 . Paul Menard +19 15. Jeff Gordon +17 16 . Clint Bowyer -- ----------------------- 17. Aric Almirola -35 ( points behind 16th-place) 18. Kasey Kahne -37 19. Greg Biffle -83 20. Austin Dillon -91 Rest of top 30 21. Kyle Larson -104 22. Danica Patrick -130 23. Casey Mears -139 24. AJ Allmendinger -140 25. David Ragan -164 26. Sam Hornish Jr . -179 27. Tony Stewart -189 28. Trevor Bayne -212 29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr . -221 30. Justin Allgaier -246
RELATED: Bristol results " Chase Grid " By the numbers since Busch's return With only two races left until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, it's time to check in on Kyle Busch , driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing , as he tries to rebound from missing 11 races to early season injuries and make the Chase . He is currently the only driver with multiple wins who has yet to mathematically clinch a spot in the Chase . WHAT JUST HAPPENED: Busch started second in Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, sharing the front row with pole-sitting teammate Denny Hamlin 's No. 11 Toyota. He followed a win in Friday night's green-white-checkered finish in the XFINITY Series with an eighth-place finish in the Sprint Cup race. A green-flag stop for a loose wheel and a penalty for speeding on pit road cost Busch a shot at winning the race despite leading the most laps, 192 of 500. WHAT HE NEEDS: Staying out of trouble remains a priority. Busch must remain in the top 30 in the drivers points standings and is in 29th after Bristol, 46 points ahead of 31st-place driver Cole Whitt . But after Saturday's race, Busch is closer to 28th place, just one point behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr ., who finished 21st at Bristol. There is a good chance Busch could lock up his Chase spot at Darlington next week. WHAT'S NEXT: The Sprint Cup Series heads to Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles' Southern 500 on Sept. 6 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). "The Lady in Black" is a tough track to tame, and the low downforce package that teams ran at Kentucky Speedway will also be used at Darlington. Busch won at Kentucky and was among the drivers who raved about the new aero package. He also has one win at Darlington, in 2008, and has an average finish there of 13.6.
RELATED: Chase Grid " Updated standings Only three races remain before the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set. Here are the scenarios for clinching a Chase berth at Bristol Motor Speedway: Below is the complete list of drivers currently in the Chase Grid. Drivers with wins who have clinched a spot in the Chase as long as they stay in the top 30 in points : 1. Jimmie Johnson 2. Kyle Busch 3. Matt Kenseth 4. Kevin Harvick 5. Joey Logano 6. Dale Earnhardt Jr . 7. Kurt Busch 8. Martin Truex Jr . 9. Brad Keselowski 10. Denny Hamlin 11. Carl Edwards Drivers currently in the top 16: 12. Jamie McMurray 13. Paul Menard 14. Ryan Newman 15. Jeff Gordon 16. Clint Bowyer If a winless driver goes to Victory Lane at Bristol, he or she would clinch a spot only if that driver is 97 points ahead of 31st place. No driver who remains winless after Bristol will clinch a spot.
RELATED: Full series standings " Chase Grid BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In postseason terms, Aric Almirola is still an outsider, but not by much -- just 23 points behind Clint Bowyer , the final driver on the provisional Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff grid. It would be easy, if not exactly sporting, for Almirola to rejoice about Bowyer's short-term woes -- a 41st-place finish last week at Michigan -- and wider-scope issues -- the impending breakup of Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing team at season's end. While opportunities exist for Almirola to capitalize, he's not expecting his would-be Chase rivals to merely play out the string. "There are two ways to look at it," Almirola said after Friday's final Sprint Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway. "One is, yeah, they may be vulnerable and guys are kind of distracted and they're scrambling looking for jobs, but the other way to look at that is they don't have anything to lose, so they can push all the gray areas as hard as they can and be really aggressive and what's the worst that's going to happen? They're not going to lose their jobs because they're already looking for work. "There are a couple different ways to look at that and I think as hardcore racers as all those guys that he has on his team are, they're not gonna lay down; they're not gonna give up; they're gonna fight hard; they're gonna try and make the Chase . It's about pride. Everybody in this garage area has egos and we all want to beat our competitors and I doubt any of those guys, Clint included, are going to lay down." Almirola aims to gain more Chase ground, starting with Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM), the third-to-last race of the Sprint Cup regular season. Besides Bowyer in front of him, he also has Kasey Kahne just three points off his heels with three unpredictable races -- Bristol, Darlington, Richmond -- looming on the schedule. The fickle nature of all three tracks presents the opportunity for wild points swings, but Almirola would prefer to get to the Chase on the merits of performance. Richard Petty Motorsports ' season-long search for speed in Almirola's No. 43 and teammate Sam Hornish Jr .'s No. 9 has made that a more difficult prospect. "We've had a few setbacks that were costly to us, but all in all we've had 15th-place cars and we've been running top-15 with them," Almirola said. "That's really all we can do. The guys back at the shop are working extremely hard and so is everybody else in the garage area to bring better cars to the race track every weekend. We've just been playing catch-up all year long. I'm really proud of everybody at RPM, but the moral of the story is we just need more speed in our cars and as we work harder and harder and continue to get more speed in our cars, our results will reflect that." One factor that has made matters trickier -- opening-day pitfalls in back-to-back race weekends. This Friday, Almirola made contact with the outside retaining wall in opening practice, forcing his RPM crew into repair mode to keep his primary car intact. But it hardly compares with last weekend's adversity, which left him ailing and infirm in Michigan's infield care center. After missing portions of practice last weekend, Almirola rallied for a 14th-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400 . This weekend, he's happy to leave his ailment several states away. "I'm back to 100 percent but my goodness was that rough," Almirola said. "I never felt so bad in a long time. I had some sort of 24-hour stomach virus and it was maybe a little longer than 24 hours, maybe 36 hours, and I was down for the count. I was laying in the infield care center on Thursday night from 11 to maybe 2:30 in the morning getting IVs and went back to the bus and got a little bit of sleep, but woke up every half-hour with throwing up or whatever and you know what the other is, so it was a long night. "I got back up the next morning and went back to get some more IVs and I watched the first hour of practice laying on my couch in my motorhome and it was all I could do to gather myself up and get over to the garage and make a couple laps at practice."
RELATED: MWR won't field full-time entries in 2016 BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Toyota officials made their first official comments concerning the demise of Michael Waltrip Racing Thursday, citing the automaker's long relationship with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organization. "We want to thank everyone at Michael Waltrip Racing for a great partnership and for being a part of our 'freshman class' -- one of the race teams that helped us enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series nine years ago," Ed Laukes, Vice President marketing, performance and guest experience for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, said in a statement. " Clint Bowyer has been a valuable member of the Toyota Racing family for the past four years, and we will continue to support him, and the rest of the MWR team through the end of the 2015 season. MORE: Bowyer free to pursue other opportunities for 2016 The two-car organization, which currently fields Toyota Camry entries for drivers Bowyer and David Ragan in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, announced Tuesday that Bowyer would not return for 2016 and the group would not field a full-time team beyond this season. MWR is co-owned by Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip . Its drivers have won seven Sprint Cup Series events with four drivers. Bowyer, who has driven the team's No. 15 entry since 2012, finished a career-best second in the points standings in 2012 and enters this weekend's event at Bristol Motor Speedway 15th in points and looking to secure one of the 16 available spots in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup . Ragan has been with the organization since May of this season, filling in for former driver Brian Vickers , who has been sidelined this season due to health issues. Toyota made the move into Sprint Cup competition in 2007 and MWR, along with Red Bull Racing and Bill Davis Racing, was one of three organizations to field Toyota entries. The automaker moved into what is now the XFINITY Series in '07 as well. It began competing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2004. "We wish everyone associated with the team the best of luck in the future and we look forward to closing out the season focused on competing for a championship," said Laukes. MWR fielded three full-time Sprint Cup Series teams as recently as 2013. But after the group was penalized prior to the start of the '13 Chase for manipulating the outcome of the final regular-season event at Richmond International Raceway, primary sponsor NAPA departed at the end of the year, forcing the group to scale back to two teams. Toyota has three drivers sitting firmly in the Chase entering Brisol in Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth , Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards . Kyle Busch , who has four wins, also is poised to make NASCAR's playoffs as long as he can remain in the top 30 in the drivers points standings. He enters Brisol in 29th place, 23 points ahead of 31st-place driver Cole Whitt . MORE: Updated Chase Grid standings