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The Inside Line: Five races left to decide Chase field

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Updated: 8/05 4:36 pm

(SportsNetwork.com) - The race to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is really heating up now.

Five positions in the Chase are up for grabs with five races remaining before the 16-driver field is set. The Sprint Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen for its second and final road-course event of the season. After Watkins Glen, the series moves on to Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta before the 26-race regular season concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond.

Following this past Sunday's race at Pocono, seven drivers have clinched a spot in the playoffs for NASCAR's premier series. They are: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, assuming they all attempt to qualify for each of the last five races in the regular season.

All seven drivers have multiple victories this season. By virtue of his three wins and current second-place in the point standings, Earnhardt holds the top spot on NASCAR's "Chase Grid." He won the Daytona 500 and scored a season- sweep at Pocono.

Gordon currently holds the lead in the point standings, but his two wins (Kansas and Indianapolis) have him ranked fifth on the Chase grid.

Having one victory each in 2014, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch have all but assured themselves a position in the Chase.

Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, rookie Kyle Larson and Greg Biffle have not won a race this season, but they presently hold the five provisional spots in the Chase.

Sitting fourth, Kenseth is the highest-ranked driver in the point standings that doesn't have a victory. He led the series with seven wins last year. Kenseth finished 38th at Pocono after being involved in the 13-car accident late in the race.

Newman, in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, finished eighth at Pocono and moved from seventh to fifth in points (26 behind Kenseth).

Bowyer's fourth-place run last weekend marked his first top-five finish since June 1 at Dover. He moved up one spot in points to ninth.

We've just got to keep doing what we're doing," said Bowyer, who qualified for the Chase in 2012 and '13, his first two seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing. "There are some things that we need to work on and some areas that we need to work on."

Larson is trying to become just the second driver to qualify for the Chase in his rookie season. Hamlin first did it in 2006. Right now, Larson is 12th in the point standings and holds the penultimate spot on the Chase grid.

"We'll keep working hard the next several weeks for a win and a spot in the Chase," Larson said.

Larson scored his first career pole in Sprint Cup at Pocono but finished 11th in the race.

Greg Biffle's fifth-place finish there not only moved him from 16th to 13th in points but also gave him the final provisional spot on the Chase grid. However, the battle between Biffle and Kasey Kahne for the 16th position is very tight, as only one point separate the two. Kahne placed 10th at Pocono.

With five races left, there's more pressure for some drivers to win rather than rely on points to get them into the Chase.

"That's been the discussion all along is, 'What would you do for a win?'," Biffle said. "I would do anything for a win. We're running as hard as we can every single lap to get every position."

Biffle has not won since June 2013 at Michigan (42 races ago), while Kahne's last victory occurred one year ago at Pocono (36-race winless streak).

"I think Watkins Glen is one of my tougher tracks, Kahne said. "It's going to be a place that we need to work really hard on to perform. After that - Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond - all of those tracks we have won at and ran really well at. I look forward to each one of those tracks and feel like we can definitely still make the Chase."

Rookie Austin Dillon is just two points behind Biffle. Other drivers who are not too far away from the Chase grid include: Paul Menard (trails Biffle by 28 points), Marcos Ambrose (-49), Brian Vickers (-51), three-time series champion Tony Stewart (-53) and Jamie McMurray (-54).

Stewart and Vickers were also caught up in the big crash at Pocono.

As a road-course expert, Ambrose's best shot of winning a race within the next five weeks will be Watkins Glen, where he scored back-to-back victories from 2011-12.

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