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

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds