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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Sauber’s Wehrlein rules himself out, Giovinazzi to sub at Australian GP

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After Friday’s practice sessions and after having been originally cleared to race for the Australian Grand Prix, it has been determined that Sauber F1 Team’s Pascal Wehrlein will not be able to continue in the rest of the weekend. He opted to rule himself out due to his fitness level.

“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit. I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team,” Wehrlein said in a release.

Wehrlein missed the opening test at Barcelona before resuming for the second test. He’d had a back injury sustained in an accident at the Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

As for that opening test, Antonio Giovinazzi, the Italian Ferrari reserve driver, will fill in for the German. This was meant to be Wehrlein’s first race with Sauber; instead, it will be Giovinazzi’s Grand Prix debut.

“We have great respect of Pascal’s openness and professionalism. This decision was definitely not an easy one for him, it underlines his qualities as a team player. The focus is now on his fitness level, and in such a situation we do not take any unnecessary risks. Pascal will be in China as planned,” team principal Monisha Kaltenborn added.

This isn’t the first injury fill-in to race in F1 in recent years; twice, Fernando Alonso has missed a race each of the last two years.

After a testing crash at Barcelona in 2015, Kevin Magnussen filled in in Alonso’s McLaren Honda, although was unable to start the race with a mechanical before the lights even went out. Meanwhile Alonso missed last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix after his accident at Melbourne, which opened the door for Stoffel Vandoorne to make his debut, and the Belgian promptly scored a point.

Giovinazzi has no prior experience at the Albert Park circuit and so will have to learn the track during FP3, which runs at 11 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying takes place at 2 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Here’s pics and notes from NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, who is on the ground in Melbourne:

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan: