Eleven races down and nine of the 16 playoff spots are claimed after a scenic sunset and race in the Sunflower State. Kansas Speedway has developed a reputation as a great venue at which to take in a race and fans were treated to 25 lead changes (the second most in track history) Saturday night.
Frequent battles for the lead weren’t the only things making a Who’s Hot and Who’s Not masterpiece; minimal tire issues and a few hard wrecks also helped to change the Cup landscape.
Up next, the All-Star Race marks a return to Charlotte Motor Speedway and a break from Chase talks, but Hot or Not is still going strong. Here’s who left their mark on Kansas:
If there was any pressure affecting Jeff Gordon, chances are it’s mostly gone.
With a win in the 5-hour Energy 400, Gordon bolstered his already strong resume — a portfolio that has put him at the head of the class for much of the year.
Gordon took the points lead after Texas and has held it since, all while pacing the series in top 5s and 10s. The former wildcard king (a spot now occupied by Matt Kenseth) is now all but locked into the Chase, and judging by his form this season, watch out.
Kenseth will have to wait until after the all-star break to attempt to join Gordon in the win column, but he too has no need to panic. He remains second in the standings after rallying from a few laps down to a 10th-place finish.
No, Kenseth isn’t a guarantee to be in the running for a second Sprint Cup title over the final 10 races at this point, but he’ll claim an at-large bid at worst if he keeps up this high-level output.
Kevin Harvick will be there, too. Harvick’s two wins make his appearance in the Chase nearly a given, but his recent hot streak shows that he’s capable of providing the consistency necessary to be a true player in the championship hunt.
Harvick moved to 15th in points with an impressive runner-up finish in Kansas, and would have had a third victory if not for Gordon. Since getting his second win at Darlington, Harvick has no finish worse than 11th and back-to-back top 10s.
Kasey Kahne is also showing signs of a turnaround following his third-place result. Kahne is on a similar trajectory to Harvick following Darlington, a race that left him with his only DNF of the season. Over the past three races, Kahne’s finishes have gotten progressively better and he now sits 16th in the standings.
That stretch includes an eighth at Talladega, which is a breath of fresh air for Kahne, after struggling with restrictor plate racing over the last few years. Crew chief Kenny Francis was fined $25,000 after that race for a rules infraction, and Kansas served as a step toward putting that in the past.
One race usually isn’t enough to change a driver’s Hot or Not status, so what makesDanica Patrick’s inclusion worthy? Patrick’s seventh wasn’t just impressive; it was her best performance ever. After qualifying eighth, Patrick stayed around to challenge the leaders for more than just a few laps. She was never far from the leaders and ran as high as third. Her driver rating of 101.4 easily outdoes her previous season high — a 74.9 given at Talladega.
All of these things indicate that Patrick will at least be worth watching at Charlotte (another 1.5-mile track) in the Sprint Showdown.
Aric Almirola will also race in the Showdown, and enters Charlotte trending in the right direction. Almirola’s form has been up this season and lately he has collected some good finishes to show for it — his eighth at Kansas, for instance. Almirola remains on pace to set personal bests in top 10s and average finishing position (even with 39th- and 43rd-place finishes).
This was supposed to be a turnaround date for Clint Bowyer. Bowyer entered his home track’s race with a race’s primary sponsor on the hood of the No. 15 Toyota, but things quickly went downhill for the struggling driver. An early spin helped illustrate just how off the car’s handling was and Bowyer never recovered. A 23rd drops him to 20th in the standings, erasing the gains of a season-best third at Talladega.
Now Bowyer must race his way into the All-Star Race because he didn’t win last season. By the way, that winless streak has now reached 52 races. It’s been more than a season and a half since he last went to victory lane at Charlotte in 2012.
Jamie McMurray has cooled off considerably since entering the spring months close to the top 10 in points. He showed signs of turning things around after a 13th at Richmond, but being the unlucky recipient of damage at Talladega and a fiery wreck at Kansas has erased that quickly. McMurray has dropped to 24th in the standings, a season low. The only thing going for him is an automatic berth in the All-Star Race thanks to his victory at Talladega last fall.
In some ways, Martin Truex, Jr. has shown improvement over the past weeks. He’s worked his was into the top 30 in points and completed all but four laps over the last seven events. However, he has failed to capitalize on dates at many of his best tracks, settling instead for mid-pack finishes instead. Truex has just one top-10 finish as a result, keeping his debut season with Furniture Row Racing on pace to be his worst ever.
Two multi-car accidents took out several drivers who were already struggling entering Kansas. The first, on lap 61, took out Landon Cassill and Ryan Truex and crippled David Ragan’s No. 34 Ford.
For Truex, a 43rd was just more of the same. The 2014 season has been an ordeal for the rookie averaging a 35.3 finish through nine starts this season with BK Racing. Truex missed the Daytona 500, and then failed to qualify at Texas. When he does make the race things aren’t much better, with three crash-related DNFs.
Ragan makes a return to the cold section following his involvement in accidents for the second week in a row. He was among those involved in the second major wreck on lap 188.
Justin Allgaier and David Gilliland were among the hardest hit in that melee when the No. 51 Chevrolet slammed into Gilliland, leaving the No. 38 in ruins. Both drivers were OK, but their Hot or Not stocks took nosedives, Gilliland’s especially.
While Allgaier has failed to collect a single top 10, Gilliland has been worse, with twoDNFs in a row.
Front Row Motorsports cars — driven by Gilliland and Ragan — have been damaged or destroyed in each of the last two events. Those are some expensive sub-35th-place finishes.