Little shakeup in Sprint Cup top 10 after Kansas, but lots of movement from 15th on back

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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.

The other four winless top 10 drivers are Jimmie Johnson (7th), Ryan Newman (8th), Greg Biffle (9th) and Brian Vickers (10th).

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.

Kyle Larson moved up one spot, from 13th to 12th, while Kansas runner-up Kevin Harvick climbed four spots to 15th.

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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Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.

Hamilton endures ‘difficult’ Russia F1 practice, impressed by Ferrari

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Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed by a “difficult” day of Formula 1 practice in Russia on Friday for Mercedes as Ferrari stole a march on the field.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi looking to take his third win in Russia and claw back the championship lead after falling seven points behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the standings.

The Briton was left to settle for fourth place in the final timesheets in FP2 as Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari’s one-lap pace, finishing over half a second back from Vettel in P1.

“Bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton admitted. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs.

“So we need to work out how we can improve our pace. But there’s still everything to play for. The tires feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance, but when they’re working they seem to be good.”

Teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third-fastest in FP2 for Mercedes, and said the team had work to do overnight to ensure it could get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire for qualifying.

“It’s been an interesting day. It’s a very different situation here with the asphalt and the temperatures compared to what we experienced in Bahrain,” Bottas said.

“We were learning about the tires on long runs and short runs and it seems like over one lap we still have work to do to get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire – that’s our focus tonight. But we can’t forget how important the race is.

“We have started the weekend in the right way. The car feels good and the balance is there. A good start but we definitely need to work hard to find some lap time for qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Stoffel Vandoorne set for 15-place F1 grid drop in Sochi

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Stoffel Vandoorne is set to receive a 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix after exceeding the number of permitted power units components for the season.

McLaren’s problems with engine supplier Honda have been well-documented, with a revision of the design of the power unit by the Japanese manufacturer backfiring to create further reliability and performance issues.

Vandoorne has taken the brunt of the issues in 2017, failing to score a point and recording just one classified finish – P13 in Australia, two laps down on the lead car – as well as being forced to change a number of components on his power unit.

Drivers are only permitted to use four of each power unit component across the course of the season before triggering a penalty, but Vandoorne’s usage has been so high that he is set to receive a grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix – only the fourth round of the season.

By taking an all-new power unit for the event in Sochi, Vandoorne has moved onto his fifth MGU-H and fifth turbocharger of the year, combining for a 15-place grid penalty on Sunday.

For every other ‘fifth’ component Vandoorne takes this season, he will receive another five-place grid drop. His first ‘sixth’ component will be worth 10 places; every remaining ‘sixth’ is five places; his first ‘seventh’ is 10 places and so on.

Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield. Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.