You can see the concern about the potential of not making this year's Chase on Tony Stewart's face. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

With 7 races left to make the Chase, things are going to go from mild to wild

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The so-called Race to the Chase just got real.

With the final off-weekend of the season next, followed by 17 straight weeks of racing, the remaining seven races leading up to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup could once again rival some of the most intense action we’ll see in the actual Chase itself.

The reason is simple: even with seven races remaining, only six drivers are essentially locked into the Chase after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.

With Brad Keselowski winning Sunday, he’s at the top of the pack with Jimmie Johnson – who had a terrible day at New Hampshire, finishing 42nd due to an early-race wreck – both with three wins apiece.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also officially in the Chase, with fellow two-time race winners Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all but locked in, as well.

Single race winners Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch are all but confirmed for the 10-race playoffs.

But with seven races left to make the Chase and at least nine winless drivers still in the fray, we’re going to see a lot more risk-taking and heated driving from Indianapolis through Richmond.

If the Chase were to start today, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and rookie Kyle Larson would be in.

And rookie Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers would be left on the outside looking in.

That’s why it’s more crucial than it has been the last few weeks that winless drivers such as Kenseth, Bowyer, Biffle and Tony Stewart – among all the others – find a way to get to victory lane in the remaining seven races prior to the Chase.

In a sense, the race to the Chase will be seven races of desperation. And as the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

As a result, we’re likely to see significantly more beating and banging, more blocking and spinning out fellow competitors. With so much on the line, there’s really not much recourse but for those on the bubble or outside looking in to drive like men (and women) possessed.

Stewart could be one of the biggest keys in the next seven races. Not only has he failed to win yet this season, he also runs the risk of not making the Chase for the second consecutive season.

Sure, he missed last year’s Chase due to injuries sustained in a sprint car wreck early last August. But to miss a second Chase – which would mark the first time that’s ever happened to Stewart – would be unheard of.

Only if Stewart were to rally in these next seven races and earn enough points to qualify for the Chase, will he make it. This is not 2011, when he also failed to win any races prior to the Chase, only to still make the playoff on points and then ripped off five wins in the 10 marquee events to capture his third championship.

Click here to take a look at the Chase standings after New Hampshire.

And then click here for the actual Sprint Cup point standings to see where the landscape rests heading into the final off-weekend of, what else, rest.

Because from here on out, there’ll be no rest for the wannabe’s who will do anything they need to do to make the show, regardless of the risk.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi GP post-race (VIDEO)

xxxx during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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The final round of the 2015 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi may not have had a great deal riding on it with both championships already decided, but with the foundations already being laid for the new year, there were a number of storylines running throughout an eventual race at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Nico Rosberg managed to see off a late challenge from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to pick up his sixth win of the year and, for the first time in his F1 career, a third in a row.

The German driver controlled proceedings from start to finish, while Hamilton was forced to settle for P2 once again ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

For the final time in 2015, Will Buxton brings you all of the news, interviews and insight following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Grosjean delighted to sign off from Lotus with points

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus is pushed onto the grid by his team before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean was delighted to end his long-running association with Lotus by picking up two points for ninth place in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Grosjean started back in 19th place after being hit with a gearbox penalty on Sunday morning, but managed to fight his way through the order to stand on the brink of the top ten in the closing stages.

With fresher tires, the Frenchman battled past Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat to move up into ninth place, securing two points for Lotus in his final grand prix for the team.

The result also ensured that Grosjean finished the year 11th in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship ahead of his move to Haas F1 Team for 2016.

“It’s been an emotional journey for me and I’m so happy to be able to reward everyone at Enstone with points in my final race for the team,” Grosjean said.

“I had to push all the way and it wasn’t always plain sailing as there was a lot to manage on the car. The calls from the pit wall were great and my pit stops were fantastic.

“I owe a lot to this team and it really feels like a family to me. I hope to be back one day in the future. This has been the best season of my career.”

Teammate Pastor Maldonado’s race ended at the first corner after he was crashed into by Fernando Alonso, leaving him with terminal suspension damage.

“It’s sad to end the race in the first corner because we were looking good for the race,” Maldonado said. “Today we had a good strategy to go with our better race pace, but anyway this is racing and it can happen.

“I didn’t see the contact I just felt it in the back of the car from Fernando. I tried to restart but then I saw the suspension damage. Imagine if that incident had been the other way round, it would’ve been big news then!”

FIA clear Ferrari, Haas of wrongdoing on aero testing

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany  steers his car during the third free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Formula One stewards have cleared Ferrari and 2016 entrant Haas of any breach of rules limiting aerodynamic testing.

Stewards at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had been asked by Mercedes to clarify the rules due to fears that teams were skirting regulations that limit time spent in wind-tunnel testing and other aerodynamic development.

Mercedes did not directly accuse any team, but the complaint related to the close ties between Ferrari and U.S. team Haas. Ferrari, as a current competitor, was subject to testing restrictions, but Haas was not, because it enters F1 next year.

Stewards ruled Sunday that there is “no evidence that competitors have not complied” with the rules, but did recommend to the sport’s governing body that future entrants be subject to the same restrictions as existing teams.

Hamilton: Mercedes surpassed all expectations in 2015

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP lifts his trophy on the podium after finishing second in the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team surpassed all expectations in 2015.

Mercedes entered the new season with a big task of emulating its feats from 2014 when it claimed 16 race wins and 18 pole positions as well as setting a new record for constructors’ championship points.

However, the W06 Hybrid car allowed Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg to reach such lofty heights once again, taking another 16 wins and 18 poles while beating last year’s constructors’ tally.

The team finished with 12 one-two finishes and scored 86% of all possible points, both new F1 records.

Speaking on the podium after finishing second in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton paid tribute to the Mercedes team following a season that also saw him claim a third drivers’ title.

“It’s been a good year. I’m happy,” Hamilton said. “I’m happy it’s over for sure, so now we can really enjoy it.

“Really have to take my hat off to the team who once again did an amazing job in building this car. The pit stop today, just the performance through the whole year, they’ve surpassed their own expectations and our expectations.

“We’ve truly shown that Mercedes-Benz is the best team in the world, so I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Hamilton spent much of Sunday’s race toiling behind Rosberg at the front of the field, and tried to get ahead of the German driver by running an alternative strategy in the closing stages of the race.

Mercedes warned Hamilton against trying a one-stop strategy as he requested, but the Briton thinks going as long as he did during his second stint without trying to go to the end was the wrong move.

“I think in hindsight once Nico had pitted I probably would have backed off a little bit and probably made those tires last a lot longer,” Hamilton said.

“The tires were still fine at the end, so I honestly felt I potentially could have taken them to the end.

“But if that didn’t work out, going too longer probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but we gave it a try and did the best job I could with it.”