Chase picture narrows after Kyle Larson’s triumph at Michigan

Aug 28, 2016; Brooklyn, MI, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (42) celebrates winning his first Sprint Cup Series race during the Pure Michigan 400 at the Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 28, 2016; Brooklyn, MI, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (42) celebrates winning his first Sprint Cup Series race during the Pure Michigan 400 at the Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Two races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Four spots are still up for grabs for the Chase. It’s about to get insane at Darlington and Richmond.

Kyle Larson’s breakthrough at Michigan changed everything. With just three races left to clinch a spot in the Chase, the 24-year-old driver ended his streak of close calls by finally rolling into Victory Lane when it mattered most. Now the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is a lock for NASCAR’s playoffs with teammate Jamie McMurray barely inside the Chase bubble.

Larson was elated to make the Chase, but didn’t hold back when asked about his expectations.

“Super, super happy. Glad we’re in the Chase,” Larson said. “We got some awesome racetracks in the Chase. We have a good shot at getting to the final two rounds, for sure, if not the final at Homestead.”

With 11 other drivers in the Chase and just two races remaining before the first race in Chicagoland, here’s a look at every driver locked in or on the bubble prior to Darlington.

In the Chase

May 1, 2016; Talladega, AL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

May 1, 2016; Talladega; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

  1. Brad Keselowski: The Blue Deuce already has four wins at a variety of different tracks. A second championship is within reach for Brad Keselowski after narrowly missing out on the final four at Homestead-Miami the last two years.
  2. Kyle Busch: No driver was as hot as Kyle Busch to start the season after posting three wins in the first 11 races. However, he has just one victory since Kansas and five DNFs this year. As the defending champion, no one on the NASCAR circuit knows how to get on a hot streak like Rowdy.
  3. Kevin Harvick: Currently holding the points lead, Kevin Harvick is riding high after a win at Bristol and a top-five finish at Michigan. If he makes it to the round of eight, The Closer is nearly a lock for Homestead with wins in six out of the last eight Phoenix races.
  4. Carl Edwards: Cousin Carl won two straight short-track races at Bristol and Richmond earlier this season to clinch a Chase spot. His 15 top-10 finishes prove his consistency and another date with Martinsville in the third round means Edwards has a great shot of competing for his first title in Homestead.
  5. Denny Hamlin: The first driver to punch his ticket was the Daytona 500 winner himself. While Denny Hamlin has been up and down since, the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver in the top five proved he’s far from done with his Watkins Glen win.
  6. Jimmie Johnson: Stuck at “Six-Time” since 2013, Jimmie Johnson is hoping to earn that elusive seventh championship this season. While the rest of Hendrick Motorsports has been down, Johnson has notched top 10s in three of the last five races. The rise of Chevrolet drivers is coming at the perfect time for JJ.
  7. Matt Kenseth: Rarely given the respect he deserves on a team full of juggernauts, Matt Kenseth is yet again prepping for a late run in the Chase. Hopefully this year he won’t receive any love taps from Joey Logano.
  8. Kurt Busch: In the midst of a sneaky great season, only Harvick has more top-10 finishes than Kurt Busch. With his spot already locked in, Busch’s consistency last year — seven top 10s, two top fives in the Chase — make him a strong contender for Homestead.
  9. Joey Logano: Had it not been for a “right front going down” for Kenseth at Martinsville, Logano looked like the favorite to win the title last year. Though he hasn’t put together as strong of a season in 2016, he can get streaky in October to propel him to a title.
  10. Martin Truex Jr.: It’s no longer a surprise to see Martin Truex Jr.’s name near the top of the leaderboard. But when he made the Championship Four last year, it shocked the NASCAR world. Furniture Row Racing might have a repeat championship contender for a second straight year after making the Chase just once in its previous decade of existence.
  11. Kyle Larson: What a difference a win can make. Kyle Larson’s first checkered flag also secured his first shot at NASCAR’s playoffs. With near-wins at Dover and Martinsville this season, don’t overlook the 2014 Rookie of the Year this fall.
  12. Tony Stewart: Similar to Larson, Tony Stewart made the Chase in his final year thanks to a win. Unlike Larson, he would have been nowhere close without his victory at Sonoma. A year after Jeff Gordon finished his career with championship hopes in the finale, Smoke is staring down a chance at a similar fate.

Inside the bubble

Mar 13, 2016; Avondale, AZ, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott during the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 13, 2016; Avondale, AZ; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott during the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

  • Chris Buescher: On the cusp of becoming the first driver to win a race and not make the current Chase format, Chris Buescher needs a strong finish at Darlington and Richmond. Currently less than 10 points ahead of David Ragan for 30th place, he’ll need to maintain that spot to get a Roush Fenway Racing alliance car in the Chase.
  • Chase Elliott: Let’s just say Chase Elliott wasn’t pleased with himself after two poor restarts cost him a win at Michigan. Heading to Darlington and Richmond, tracks he won at in the Xfinity Series, Elliott will be the second driver to lock his Chase berth from Hendrick over the next two weeks.
  • Austin Dillon: Prior to 2016, questions started creeping in about whether Austin Dillon would ever be a contender. After posting more top 10s (10) and top fives (four) in one year than his career, Dillon making the Chase without a win would prove his transformation as Richard Childress’ next young star.
  • Jamie McMurray: Currently holding down the final spot, Jamie McMurray has a chance to give Chip Ganassi Racing two drivers in the new Chase for the first time. After finishing 13th last year, McMurray simply making the playoffs is a huge accomplishment for the two-car team.

Need help

Jun 12, 2016; Brooklyn, MI, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Trevor Bayne (6) looks on during driver introductions prior to the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 12, 2016; Brooklyn, MI; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Trevor Bayne during driver introductions at Michigan International Speedway. Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

  • Ryan Newman: Not having a win in 112 straight races is finally catching up with Ryan Newman. Despite finishing second in the Chase in 2014, Newman hasn’t driven to Victory Lane since the 2013 Brickyard 400. If he can’t jump McMurray or Dillon in points, he’ll need a miracle to make the Chase this season.
  • Kasey Kahne: At this point, Kasey Kahne’s hot seat is smoldering after another dreadfully average season. Staring down yet another winless campaign where he finishes outside the Chase, Kahne is far behind his Hendrick teammates — including rookie Elliott.
  • Trevor Bayne: Once seen as a contender to get Roush Fenway back in the Chase, Trevor Bayne has fallen off since his third-place result at Daytona. The progression has been evident this year, but Roush is still well behind the pace set by the rest of the Sprint Cup field.
  • Ryan Blaney: For a team with no guaranteed spot every week, the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney have exceeded expectations. With just two chances to get into the Chase remaining, however, only a win will ensure this single-car team a shot at contending for a title heading into Chicagoland.

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