Chase outlook brighter for some, cloudy for others after Michigan

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With 12 drivers now officially locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup after yesterday’s Pure Michigan 400, the battle to claim one of the final four spots on the Chase Grid is set to heat up considerably over the three remaining regular season races.

Yesterday’s race saw four drivers in the thick of that battle improve their prospects by moving up in the Chase outlook, while one driver in particular suffered a major setback.

Let’s take a look at who’s now sitting on the Chase Grid and who’s on the outside looking in as Bristol Motor Speedway beckons…

13. 20-Matt Kenseth, 709 points

  • Finished 38th yesterday
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 13th, +77 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 13th, +58 over 17th

Kenseth was one of multiple drivers who were collected in an early spin by Danica Patrick yesterday. Rear suspension damage on the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota forced him to the garage for repairs, and he later returned to action 27 laps down.

Luckily for Kenseth, he already had a big cushion between himself and being outside of the Chase Grid. It’s shrunk by 19 points after yesterday, but he’s still in good shape.

14. 31-Ryan Newman, 679 points

  • Finished 11th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 14th, +19 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 14th, +28 over 17th

Exchange of unpleasantness with Jimmie Johnson aside, Newman can feel alright about his 11th-place day at Michigan. In a situation where every point is going to be critical, he was able to increase his Chase cushion by nine points thanks to a late-race surge that included his run-in with the defending Sprint Cup champion.

If he can secure a Top-5 or Top-10 finish on Saturday night at Bristol, he’d be looking really good to make the post-season in his first year at Richard Childress Racing.

15. 15-Clint Bowyer, 672 points

  • Finished sixth
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 16th, +8 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 15th, +21 over 17th

Also putting some ground between himself and his Chase rivals was Bowyer, who progressively moved up from mid-pack into the Top 10 late before claiming a sixth-place finish.

That’s worth a gain of 13 points over 17th, and also kicks the Kansas native up one spot on the Chase Grid to 15th. He perfectly summed it up after the race, saying: “We just did what we needed to do today.”

16. 16-Greg Biffle, 660 points

  • Finished 10th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 17th, -8 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 16th, +9 over 17th

After doing well in qualifying, the Roush Fenway Racing camp of Greg Biffle (10th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15th), and Carl Edwards (23rd) couldn’t quite carry the momentum over to race day.

But by squeaking out a Top-10 finish, Biffle still pushed himself into the 16th and final position on the Chase Grid with a 17-point swing in the positive direction.

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17. 5-Kasey Kahne, 651 points

  • Finished 16th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 18th, -12 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 17th, -9 behind 16th

Kahne was running in the Top 10 with less than 20 laps to go, but faded following the last restart of the day to a 16th-place result.

Had he not dropped spots late, he might have been able to crack the Chase Grid. But Kahne has been a solid competitor as of late at Bristol (a win, two Top-5s, three Top-10s in last 3 starts), so watch for him to be a dark horse on Saturday.

18. 3-Austin Dillon, 638 points

  • Finished 22nd
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 19th, -18 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 18th, -22 behind 16th

A mechanical issue that emerged in the second half of the race caused Dillon to lose power and ultimately swallow a sub-par finish. He moved up one position in the Chase outlook, but his overall points gap behind 16th place actually grew by four points to 22.

After the race, Dillon vowed that he and his team would “be ready to battle” at Bristol. They need to follow through on that promise.

19. 42-Kyle Larson, 636 points

  • Finished 43rd
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 15th, +9 over 17th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: 19th, -24 behind 16th

Larson’s crash just before halfway was a horrible twist of fate for his post-season hopes. The 43rd-place finish caused him to drop a whopping 33 points and dive from 15th on the Chase Grid to 19th and out of the picture with three races left.

There’s still time to recover, but can he put an entire weekend together and get that critical win he needs to make the post-season?

20. 9-Marcos Ambrose, 616 points

  • Finished 12th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: 20th, -50 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan, 20th, -44 behind 16th

One week after narrowly missing out on a golden opportunity to make the Chase on the road course at Watkins Glen, Ambrose turned in a 12th-place run at Michigan.

The points gain, however, was minimal. But keep an eye on him as we head for Bristol, where he’s earned three Top-10s in his last four starts. With a little luck, he just might get a second chance to “win and get in.”

21. 27-Paul Menard, 614 points

  • Finished 4th
  • Chase Grid Status before Michigan: -60 behind 16th
  • Chase Grid Status after Michigan: -46 behind 16th

Menard was quick during the weekend and netted his fourth Top-5 finish of the season. But after three consecutive finishes outside of the Top 30, the fourth-place effort at MIS may have been too little, too late in regards to making the Chase.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.