Originally Published: August 18, 2014

Sprint Cup: Big Day For Gordon

Sprint Cup: Chase fight heating up

By Brant James | ESPN.com

Kyle Larson's potentially historic bid is in jeopardy.

Greg Biffle is hanging on to a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth by a root, but sounds like he's plummeting. Clint Bowyer, likewise.

Kasey Kahne, meanwhile, keeps flitting around the periphery.

Such is the increasingly odd and angst-addled three-race approach to the Chase under the new format instituted this season by NASCAR. There was little consolation for winless drivers with postseason aspirations on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. Even if they did well.

Larson didn't even do well, as his Chase attempt could ultimately be undone by two tires. Specifically right-front tires, the ones that blew out at Kentucky Speedway in July and at MIS on Sunday.

The 22-year-old's eventful day ended on Lap 94 of 200 when his No. 42 Chevrolet veered hard into a wall after a tire failure and began trailing flame.

Kyle Larson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesKyle Larson's Chase chances are getting thinner with three races until the playoffs begin.

He finished 43rd, dropping to 19th in the standings and a weighty 24 points behind Biffle for the 16th and final Chase spot.

"It's just a shame," Larson said after his third unfinished race of the season. "We were up there in the points battle, so we have to work even harder now to try and get in the Chase. I thought we had a car capable of winning the race for sure."

Larson appeared able to compete earlier in the race, running eighth on Lap 21 before a competition caution. But a pit-road collision with Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely altered the tow of his car, Larson said, contributing to the blowout.

"Before that competition caution we were really fast," said Larson, who finished 40th at Kentucky with the first right-front blowout of his stock car career. "I could pass people no problem and was catching the two in front of us."

Larson is heartened by a 10th-place finish -- after starting 20th -- in his first Bristol start this spring, saying, "We were really good at Bristol earlier in the year. So we just have to go back there and try and get a win. That is really all we can do now."

Pretty much.

Larson's misfortune in attempting to join Denny Hamlin (2006) as rookie Chase-qualifiers allowed Biffle to slink back into the Chase boundary with a workmanlike 10th-place finish. The Roush Fenway Racing driver had fallen off the postseason grid last week despite an eighth-place finish at Watkins Glen. Biffle called Sunday's result at MIS "a huge improvement for us," but bemoaned what he considered a wasted opportunity.

"I guess it was a good day," he said. "We got a top-10. [I] really wanted to run up in the top five. We had a car to do that and that track position we would get loose around other cars. We still have to work on that with our race cars."

Kahne managed to advance a spot in the standings to 17th with a less-impressive 16th-place run at Michigan. The margin between him and Biffle is nine points.

A first-time winner from beyond their points strata would be very bad news for these three, with 12 of the 16 Chase spots already held by victors. Fortunately for them, the most likely first-time winners are already holding transfer spots on points.

Matt Kenseth, whose No. 20 Toyota was involved in an early multi-car incident with Danica Patrick, is 13th in the standings after a 38th-place finish on Sunday, but appears even after finishing in that position in two of the past three weeks to have amassed enough points with eight top-5s and 14 top-10s to advance comfortably.

And statistically, the 2013 series-leading seven-time winner could be primed to simplify things with a win after failing to reach Victory Lane so far this season.

Kenseth has gained more points at the next three venues over the past five races than any driver, including the most at Bristol (where he won last fall) and second most at Atlanta.

Granted, Kahne won at Bristol in the spring of 2013, but has done little to seize opportunity this season as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates flourish.

And then there's Bowyer, who has won twice at Richmond, most recently in the fall of 2012. But at 15th in the standings, winless and just 12 points ahead of Biffle, he sounded insecure on Sunday, even after producing four top-10s in his past six races.

"We clearly got a lot of work to do," he said after finishing sixth. "It's unfortunate. We're behind, there's no question. We just did what we needed to do today.

"Right now, everything has to be perfect to get a decent finish and today everything was perfect. This is a tricky part of the season. Everybody is pushing hard. You got a lot of guys coming from behind that are getting their stuff working better. Everybody's working hard. It's that time of year."

And that time is running out.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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