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CUP: Harvick Heads List Of Most Improved

The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season saw a handful of drivers clearly step it up and raise their own level of performance significantly.

Here’s SPEED.com’s five most improved drivers of 2010:

1. KEVIN HARVICK — Without question, Harvick is the one driver who stood out head and shoulders above the others in growth. On a purely numeric basis, the difference was staggering: In 2009, Harvick finished 19th in points, with no victories, five top-five and nine top-10 finishes. In 2010, he won three points races and the Budweiser Shootout, and had 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes, while ending the year third in points.

While the entire Richard Childress Racing organization enjoyed a renaissance in 2010, no one on the team stepped it up more than Harvick did, as he emerged as the squad’s clear leader by nearly winning the championship. On top of the that, Harvick and wife DeLana have built an enviable NASCAR Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series operation with their Kevin Harvick Inc. team.

2. JAMIE MCMURRAY — Almost lost in the shuffle of McMurray’s magic season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was the fact that his four-year tenure at Roush Fenway Racing was a huge disappointment, with McMurray never finishing higher than 16th in the Sprint Cup points standings.

And that made 2010’s breakout season all that much better. By becoming only the third driver to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season, McMurray cemented himself in the record books. And all through the season, it seemed as if the bigger the race, the better McMurray and the No. 1 EGR team performed.

3. JOEY LOGANO — While a lot of people would look at Joey Logano and say he’s extremely lucky to have gotten one of the primo rides in NASCAR as a teenager, the truth is it came with a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations. And Logano had to overcome being bullied by other drivers who sometimes tried to push the gangly Logano around. He mostly held his own through confrontations with Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya.

As a rookie in 2009, Logano finished 20th in points; he picked up four spots in the final 2010 standings. More importantly, he more than doubled his number of top-five and top-10 finishes and showed flashes of the brilliance that the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing were looking for when they signed him to replace Tony Stewart.

4. AJ ALLMENDINGER — Few drivers had more adversity to deal with in 2010 than The ‘Dinger, who signed a contract extension with Richard Petty Motorsports only to see the team pushed to the precipice of financial ruin by the mismanagement of majority owner George Gillett. Faced with plenty of adversity, a lot of drivers would have complained or quit racing hard.

Not Allmendinger. Over the final five races of the season, when it was unsure if RPM would even make it to the track each week, Allmendinger finished 18th or better four times. He qualified on the outside pole at Phoenix and had a season’s-best oval-track finish of fifth at Homestead. He also said and did all the right things for his team and sponsors under difficult conditions, ending the year with the best points finish of any RPM driver.

5. PAUL MENARD — Like Allmendinger, Menard had to deal with the ongoing meltdown of the RPM organization at the end of the season. Driving for his third team in three years, Menard earned six top-10 finishes, after only posting two in his first 111 Sprint Cup races. Not great, perhaps, but much better than in years past.

Menard ended the year 23rd in points, a career best. Next year, he will move to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be in top-notch equipment for the first time in his career.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.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.