With each finishing position now being worth a single point, deficits translate to bigger challenges to get back into contention.
"There's definitely some anxiety for some guys," Denny Hamlin said. "I can't speak for guys like Jeff Burton and those guys that have had a tough couple races, but it's tough to come here and know that we need to make up some points."
In the past, the winner earned 185 points and a possible five-point bonus for leading the most laps. Second place was worth 170 and the rest of the top six were separated by five points. Spots seven through 11 were separated by four points and everyone else separated by three. A few top-five finishes in a row was a quick way to get back into championship contention since the points were weighted toward the top 10.
Now every spot is separated by a single point.
"I do know the lower you go in the finishing order, the bigger the deficit," Jimmie Johnson said. "But, we just need to start running well, consistently I should say. We have had fast moments during races, but we just have to finish a little bit better and make sure we don't fall too far. So, yes there is a concern that if you get too far behind early and we don't want that to happen."
Jeff Gordon has a win this year, but he also has finishes of 26th, 19th and 19th to be 19th in the standings, 46 points behind series leader Kurt Busch. That means Gordon has to beat Busch by a total of 46 positions in the next 22 races.
Others who are in early-season trouble include: 15th-place Kevin Harvick (40 points behind), 17th Denny Hamlin (40), 23rd Greg Biffle (64), 24th Clint Bowyer (66), 26th Jamie McMurray (74), 29th Jeff Burton (76) and 31st Brian Vickers (81).
Johnson is seventh in the standings, 20 points behind. His goal is to clinch on the top 10 spots after 26 races to move into the Chase, or to get one of two wild card entries for the most victories in the regular season.
"I do recognize the lower you finish the bigger the gap," he said. "I think we are all learning as we go here. I want to believe when we get to Richmond where the Chase starts that after the 26th race we will kind of average out the guys that you expect to be in the top-10 or top-12 however you look at it will still be there. We've got a lot of racing left."
Carl Edwards has a win and two second-place finishes in the first four races, but a 28th-place finish at Phoenix has kept him from leading the points.