May 11, 2014, 4:36 PM EDT
Saturday’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway saw little change in the Sprint Cup standings for most of the drivers who came into the race in the top 15 in the rankings.
But there was some significant changes from 15th to 35th, for sure.
While that may not seem overly important, au contraire. While race winner Jeff Gordon became the ninth different winner thus far in 2014, there are still seven places that need to be filled out for the expanded 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup format later this season.
And with 15 races remaining in the run-up to the Chase, it’s clear that those drivers who have gotten off to a poor start in 2014 are now playing catch-up in an effort to make the Chase if the final field includes entrants who will not have won a race by then.
Among the top 10 in the Cup standings, race winner Jeff Gordon opened up a 15-point lead over Matt Kenseth, who remains one of five drivers in that same top 10 without a win thus far in 2014.
And of all drivers in the top 10, only three changed positions in the rankings, and those changes were minimal, at best.
Edwards dropped from a tie for fourth to fifth, while Newman climbed one spot, essentially switching the eighth and ninth spots with Greg Biffle.
The biggest changes in the Sprint Cup standings occurred from 12th on back.
Also climbing four positions and making himself close to being eligible for the Chase despite any wins was Kansas third-place finisher Kasey Kahne, who not only earned his best finish of the season, he also jumped from 20th to 16th in the overall standings.
But after Kahne, 14 drivers between 17th and 35th dropped at least one place in the standings, while only two drivers increased their rankings.
Let’s deal with the latter first: Aric Almirola climbed from 23rd to 21st, and in perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of the weekend, Danica Patrick‘s career-best seventh-place finish Saturday allowed her to climb from 29th to 27th.
As for the decliners:
* AJ Allmendinger, dropped two spots from 15th to 17th.
* Paul Menard dropped from 17th to 18th
* Marcos Ambrose took a big hit, dropping three positions from 16th to 19th.
* Clint Bowyer is still seeking his first career win at his “home track” of Kansas after Saturday’s race. Even worse, Bowyer dropped from 18th to 20th in the standings.
* Tony Stewart dropped from a tie for 21st to 22nd.
* Casey Mears went from a tie for 21st to 23rd.
* Even though he has one win this season, Kurt Busch continued to struggle, dropping from 27th to 28th.
* Justin Allgaier went from 28th to 29th, Michael Annett climbed from 31st to 30th, David Gilliland dropped from 30th to 31st, Cole Whitt climbed from 33rd to 32nd, Alex Bowman dropped two spots to 34th and David Ragan also dropped two spots, from 33rd to 35th.
Also of note: While only 106 points separates points leader Gordon from 19th-ranked Ambrose, the dropoff becomes much more significant from there.
Stewart is now 126 points behind Gordon, Patrick is 181 points back, Kurt Busch is 183 points in arrears and every driver from Annett (30th) on back is more than 200 points behind Gordon.
Even with 15 races still remaining to make the Chase, it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that those drivers that are more than 200 points back are pretty close to being eliminated from Chase contention already.
The only way they’d likely change that is to win two or more races, but given what they’ve shown so far – with the exception of the elder Busch brother – the odds of those trailing drivers making a 180-degree turnaround seem more unlikely with each coming race.
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