RELATED: Chase Grid " Chase Bubble Watch Kyle Larson spent three intense days at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week logging laps, studying data and working on what could potentially be the most important homework assignment of his career. So far. Knowing that the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will be crowned at the Nov. 22 season-finale at the 1.5-mile speedway, the test session -- a two-day Goodyear tire test followed by a one-day open test -- was an essential learning tool. Thing is, Larson, last year's Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year, still has to earn a spot in the 16-driver Chase field to even be among the title discussion by the time the series heads back to the South Florida track to race. And time's running out. Only two chances remain to grab one of the playoff spots -- this week at Darlingon and next week at Richmond. Because Larson is not currently ranked among the top-16 in the points standings, his only chance of earning a Chase berth is winning a race and making his first career trip to a Sprint Cup Victory Lane. It's crunch time, and Larson knows it. "We know we have to win," Larson said. "And still right now, we have to find some more speed to compete for a win. We've been close a couple times this year just based on strategies. "It could happen even with just two races left. We tested at Richmond earlier in the year and it went well. I always run just outside top-10 at Richmond and I thought I learned a lot (at the test). So we've got good stuff for Richmond, and Darlington is a track I like a lot." Having his season's fate decided in such dramatic fashion wasn't exactly what Larson or others predicted. Larson was widely considered a shoe-in for a title run -- at least a playoff berth -- after an impressive rookie season. A natural talent from the same kind of open-wheel background as three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and four-time champ Jeff Gordon , Larson has emerged as one of the sport's new young headliners and is widely regarded as future championship material. Now the 23-year-old must seal the deal. "I'm definitely surprised it's come down to this," Larson said while waiting out a rain delay last week at Homestead. "The way both Jamie (McMurray, CGR teammate) and I ended last year, we thought we'd be a contender this year. "We've been fast but just haven't had any luck at all this year and that's been really frustrating. When we have speed in the cars we run in top-10. At Bristol, for example, we blew two front tires. Last year we'd run way worse but have better finishes." WATCH: Rough night for Larson at Bristol There's no denying it's been a no-luck, hard-knock kind of season despite the team's best efforts. While Chip Ganassi Racing 's other Chevrolet driven by McMurray is in promising position to earn a Chase position based on points, it's been a tough road for the team's second-year driver. Larson's third place at Dover in May is his best finish of the season and only top-five showing after a rookie year when he was regularly mixing it up at the front of the field, posting five top-three finishes, including three runner-ups. He's had only two top-10s in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet since Dover this spring, and his four DNFs equal the number he had all of last year. But there is encouraging news to consider, and Larson has not conceded a thing. His No. 42 Chevrolet was easily one of the best cars in the Chase last year with six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races, including a streak of five consecutive as the postseason kicked in. MORE: Larson's Darlington 'Days of Thunder' throwback scheme Should Larson earn a playoff chance, he feels the team should be strong down the stretch. "Last year I thought we were running better at this point in the season than we are now," Larson said. "But a lot of the tracks in the Chase I really enjoy running at and I think that's part of why we had success in the Chase . "I think we'll be good again this year in the Chase . It's just right now, we're not in it." He added quickly: "That could change." MORE: Who's most likely to win way into Chase ?
Aric Almirola sat out a portion of Friday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Michigan International Speedway as he dealt with an illness. According to a release provided by Richard Petty Motorsports , Almirola was suffering from what the team hopes is a 24-hour virus. The team said it intended for Almirola to make limited laps in practice in the No. 43 Ford in hopes of participating in Coors Light Pole Qualifying later and retaining his starting spot for Sunday's main event. Almirola did participate in qualifying and will lineup 30th for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). The team retained two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton as a relief driver for the bulk of Friday's lone practice. It isn't the first substitute role in the Sprint Cup Series for Crafton. The 39-year-old driver filled in for Paul Menard , awaiting the birth of his first child, during practice in March 2014 at Auto Club Speedway. Crafton also was an 11th-hour replacement for the injured Kyle Busch in the 2015 Daytona 500 . Almirola is the highest-ranking driver outside of the provisional Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason grid entering Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 . He made his first Chase appearance last year after scoring his first Sprint Cup win at Daytona International Speedway in July. NBCSN reported that Almirola was received treatment at the 2-mile track's infield care center. The change of plans for Crafton was amplified by the adjustment to the high-drag rules package for the Sprint Cup Series this weekend. "It's definitely different," Crafton said after his first stint in the RPM No. 43. "A lot of it's unknown for them because of the new aero packages we have, so nobody knows anything about it. They thought the car would be tight, but I don't think everybody's fighting real tight right now. So, we'll keep working on it."
RELATED: Updated Chase Grid Ain't no party like a NASCAR party! As the regular season nears its end and The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rapidly approaches, so too does the annual fan celebration to mark its beginning -- NASCAR Chase Fest. Taking place, once again, in Chicago on Sept. 17 ahead of the first Challenger Round race at Chicagoland Speedway , Chase Fest sponsored by Toyota and Sprint provides a free outdoor fan fest featuring appearances and autograph sessions with all 16 Chase drivers and other NASCAR personalities. Grammy-nominated 3 Doors Down will help keep the party flowing with a concert, as well as a performance by Chicago's popular country cover band, the Suburban Cowboys. Fans in attendance also will have a plethora of meal and drink options, with food being provided by Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and beverages by Coors Light. Additional entertainment will include the Toyota Ferris Wheel and the NASCAR on NBC Sports Bumper Cars. The events of the day will be covered by NBCSN, including Krista Voda, Kyle Petty, Marty Snider and Rutledge Wood, for the network's live broadcast of "NASCAR America." Chase Fest will take place on Weed Street between Fremont and Kingsbury streets from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. local time. For full details on this year's Chase Fest, click here .
RELATED: Complete race results " Updated series standings ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- All the positives -- the determined late-race comeback, leading the most laps, moving up a rung in the standings -- meant little to Chase Elliott in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's matinee at Road America . His own harshest critic, Elliott didn't hold back in giving his performance a scathing review. "Absolutely terrible job on my part," Elliott said after a fourth-place finish in the Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville. "That was the worst race, just beyond way too many mistakes. Just absolutely screwed that up, so terrible day for me. I hate it for my guys. I had such a good car and I let 'em down." The clouds that hung over the 4.048-mile road course were missing the silver linings, according to the defending NASCAR XFINITY Series champion, who guided the JR Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet from 11th place over the final four-lap stretch to the checkered flag in the 45-lap event. That span was part of an even bigger rally, from 23rd place after his final pit stop on Lap 30, just two laps after an off-course excursion at Turn 11 that cost him plenty of momentum. Both comebacks left him with little consolation. "Top five's not a win," Elliott said. "Have to be honest with yourself. I screwed it up." The negative side of Elliott's day didn't resonate as strongly with crew chief Ernie Cope, who discussed the race at length with the 19-year-old driver in the XFINITY garage. "He is hard on himself. He expects to win and he doesn't want to let us down, which he didn't," Cope said. "He came back in three laps and went from (11th) to fourth, so I look at that. I mean, we were pinned back there and then passing about seven cars in three laps. I mean, you're going to have altercations during it." The ending was a sharp contrast to how Elliott's day started. The youngster started on the front row after Coors Light Pole Qualifying was scratched by rain, then jumped out to lead the opening 12 laps. After briefly giving up the top spot on an early exchange of pit stops for fuel strategy, Elliott reassumed the lead, stretching it to more than 12 seconds during the dominant first half. "It was as good as it looked and by far I feel like the best road race car I've ever had," said Elliott, who led 23 of the 45 laps. "I was beyond pleased with the race car. It wasn't the race car's fault, I can tell you that." Elliott pitted after putting all four tires into the grass off the 14-turn circuit's kink, apologizing to his JRM crew over the radio after leaving pit road back in the pack. From there, though, his comeback trail began, only to be stemmed by a six-lap caution period -- a seeming eternity on the lengthy course -- after multiple breakages and fluid leaks in the pack delayed the final restart. "They're going caution after caution after caution, but I still feel like we would've had time to get back up there and have a shot at winning as good as the car was," Cope said. "You just don't know how they're going to fall. It was just a bad storm." Once the clouds lifted, Cope took solace in the big-picture plusses. With 10 races left in the season, Elliott now sits in second place in the standings, supplanting Ty Dillon , who took 10th Saturday. Elliott's top-five result, combined with series leader Chris Buescher 's ninth-place run, chopped his deficit to just 16 points heading to next weekend's event at Darlington Raceway . "Looking at the positives, we gained seven, but it was a day we could've gotten 15," Cope said of the points tally. "But it's all good. We're right where we need to be. That puts us back (to) second, we're only 16 out of it and we're going to go stomp their asses at Darlington."
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?
Check out the original paint scheme Chase Elliott is paying homage to at Darlington Raceway.
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.
As the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup turns 10, get the history, format and more
RELATED: Chase bubble watch: Who's in, who's out post-Bristol
RELATED: Homestead-Miami hosting Goodyear tire test HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Waiting out a morning shower in the Homestead-Miami Speedway garage on Wednesday, reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick was dressed casually but clearly at work, talking with his Stewart-Haas Racing crew as they hovered over laptop computers and gestured toward his plain gray No. 4 Chevrolet SS. The last time this group was at this track, they were getting showered in champagne, not rain, celebrating Harvick's 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship title, thanks to a victory in the season finale here. But it was all business for Harvick Wednesday as he and nine other drivers came to the 1.5-mile track for a one-day open test for Sprint Cup teams, attended by three of last year's four championship contenders, also including last week's winner Joey Logano ( Team Penske ) and Denny Hamlin ( Joe Gibbs Racing ). RELATED: Anheuser-Busch to change look of SHR's No. 4 car in 2016 "You know, I actually hadn't even thought about it to tell you the truth," a smiling Harvick said of his first time back at Homestead since his title-winning performance last November. "I know that doesn't make for a great story, but no one [on the team] has even mentioned it. Everything happens so fast in this sport from a week-to-week basis and you get so caught up in what you need to do the next week. "We're always trying to look forward so I really hadn't thought about everything that happened last year. We're so focused on being in position, to hopefully have a chance to do that again and get back here." Harvick's primary championship challengers were of similar mindset. And like all of the 10 drivers here -- also including Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kyle Larson , Martin Truex Jr ., Ty Dillon , Ryan Blaney , Clint Bowyer and Trevor Bayne -- the lone opportunity to turn some extra test laps at Homestead is something not to be missed, even if track time boiled down to a couple late morning hours before heavier rains interrupted the schedule. With the elimination-style format of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs heading into its second year, the importance of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway has increased exponentially. When the Sprint Cup Series arrives in South Florida in three months, four drivers will be eligible for the title – the highest finisher in this race will be crowned champion. Last year, Harvick won the race and therefore, the season trophy. Logano, who collected his third win in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford last weekend at Bristol, also spoke about the emphasis teams now place specifically on being prepared for Homestead. MORE: Logano victorious in Bristol night race "Hopefully this test is very important for us," Logano said with a slight laugh. "You hope it is [because that means you're in the championship hunt.] Just getting to here (season finale) is a challenge. "If we do, then this test today will be the most important test of the year. So we definitely want to put a lot into it and make sure we get a lot out of it and really understand what we learned out of it." Logano's three wins would rank him right behind the season's four-time winners Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch for the start of the Chase on Sept. 20 at Chicagoland Speedway and like Harvick, Logano believes his team is right where it needs to be at this point in the season. "Right now, we're peaking at the right spot, and getting a couple wins in the last three weeks is what we need to do heading into the Chase ," said Logano, who finished 16th in the 2014 Homestead race. "Winning the Bristol night race last year kind of propelled us into the Chase , I thought, and gave us good momentum into the Chase . Getting all the way to here [Homestead] was a heck of an accomplishment. And we just need to focus on what we need to do. I feel like as a team we learned a lot in terms of how to execute a championship weekend." RELATED: Harvick scores another runner-up finish It looks like everyone will have to raise their game to dethrone Harvick, however, who has a pair of wins and a series-best 17 top-five finishes highlighted by 10 runner-up showings already this season. "We've struck a pretty good course in terms of being able to have a plan in place for the Chase , and everyone has done a good job in terms of being prepared when it comes time for Chicago," Harvick said. "We've been ready every week. We've just got to keep doing those things. ... No different than last year when we made it happen when it counted." WATCH: Harvick chases Logano in the closing laps at Bristol