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CUP: Points Race Heats Up

While a third Jimmie Johnson victory in five Sprint Cup races may be frustrating to some of the drivers and fans at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, aside from Johnson’s ongoing dominance, the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has a new look to it.

LINK > UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: Food City 500 - BRISTOL

Of the 12 drivers who qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2009, seven of them are outside the top 12 following Johnson’s late-race charge to victory in the rough-and-tumble Food City 500.

After his 11th-place finish at BMS, Kevin Harvick held on to the Cup points lead for the fourth consecutive race, although his margin over Matt Kenseth is but a single point. Food City 500 winner Jimmie Johnson is third, 14 points behind Harvick. Greg Biffle (-24), Tony Stewart (-89) and Kurt Busch (-97) are fourth through sixth.

Behind them come Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.

Drivers who made the Chase in 2009 but are on the outside of the top 12 so far this season include Carl Edwards (13th), Brian Vickers (14th), Mark Martin (16th), Denny Hamlin (19th), Juan Pablo Montoya (22nd), Kasey Kahne (23rd) and Ryan Newman (26th).

With just five of 26 races complete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season, it may seem as if it’s early to start talking about points. It’s not. Last year and in 2007, eight of the top 12 drivers in points after Bristol went on to make the Chase; in 2008, 10 drivers in the top 12 after Bristol made the Chase.

Guys like Montoya, Kahne and Newman certainly aren’t out of contention for Chase slots, but with each passing race, the task of making up ground becomes a little bit more challenging.

And then there’s the whole issue of contracts.

Both Harvick and Kahn are in the final year of their current deals. And both have said that whether they stay or go depends a lot on how their teams perform. Kahne went as far as to suggest that in order to stay with his current team, he wanted to see his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford competitive with Hendrick Motorsports.

Harvick pretty much said the same thing Friday morning at Bristol. “The most important thing to me is that we take that next step – like making the cars better, making the engines better, making everything better,” Harvick says. “We need to keep the competitiveness of the team at the level where it needs to be because everybody is going to continuously get better. You can’t always play catch-up; at some point you have to be ahead to win a championship.”

LINK > UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: Food City 500 - BRISTOL

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.