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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has gone through 17 rounds thus far into the 2010 season and Kevin Harvick still remains the leader in points, 105 points more than Jimmie Johnson.

The round’s reference is made just because it looks like we’re going to have a 36 round slug fest with Denny Hamlin and Johnson. No, they aren’t feuding – although, that would make it even better – the two are throwing metaphorical punches like an Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward bout.

Johnson came out swinging first ,winning three of the first five races of the season. Hamlin was bloodied and dazed, but hung in there and the cut-man fixed him nicely. All of a sudden, Hamlin, the number one contender to dethrone the champ, starts fighting back with jabs at Martinsville, an upper-cut at Texas, a right-cross at Darlington and Johnson is on the ropes looking like he’s ready to be knocked out.

Hamlin keeps the punches flying at Pocono and Michigan and the reporters are already typing their headlines as a new champ is about to be crowned, but then the bell rings. Johnson is dazed and went through a flurry of punches like the champ hasn’t seen in five years, but the smelling salt brought some life back into him, he re-grouped, got some advice from his corner man and came out with a vengeance for the next round.

Johnson threw haymakers at both Sonoma and New Hampshire while Hamlin got weak at the knees in both instances. Currently, Johnson’s got all his opponents on the run and is going to be tough to knockout.

It’s been an entertaining run thus far in what looks to be a battle down the stretch between Hamlin and Johnson, even though Harvick currently leads. Once the Chase field is set after September’s Richmond race, the 12-man field will be lined up by wins through the first 26 races. Johnson and Hamlin have five wins each, which if started today, would give them 50 points. That would be at least 30 points more than the next closest drivers, who at this point are the Busch brothers.

While the race at the top of the standings has been entertaining, the race to make the field near the bottom has been almost as fun. With only nine races to go until the field is set, only 43 points separate the 11th-place driver, Mark Martin, from the 15th-place driver, Clint Bowyer. Only 210 points separates the 22nd-place driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, from 11th-place.

One driver that has made a steady climb near the top-12 heading to Daytona this week is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is only three points out of 12th-place. Junior has had the three best consecutive runs of the season coming in and now gets to race on a track that has his only top-five run of the season. During the season opening Daytona 500, Junior made a late charge and finished second.

It’s been over two years since Junior has won a race, but between the value the Las Vegas sports books are going to offer him at and his current string of good runs, he’s a driver that could be worth taking a chance on this week. Because of all his mediocrity over the last three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, most books should have Junior in the 12 to 1 range like he was in the Daytona 500, but could be even higher based on what his 15 to 1 odds at Talladega in April.

The teams that really seem to have their restrictor-plate programs together are Childress, Roush-Fenway, and Eanhardt-Ganassi. Jamie McMurray won as a 40 to 1 long shot in the Daytona 500 and followed that up with a strong runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick at Talladega. The last three years, the Roush program has really kicked up a notch from their past trends and have won three plate races, two of them by McMurray while he drove a Roush car.

Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart have been very good in plate races as well, in fact, they got tangled up near the finish line of the last lap in this race last season racing for the win. Stewart took the win, his third Daytona win, all of which have come in the July Firecracker race. Busch won this race in 2008 and has often had the best car during his three years of plate racing with Joe Gibbs.

A driver that may have some value this week is one that has never won a plate race. Kurt Busch has come close several times and is regarded as the best driver in NASCAR to never have won a plate race. He always seems to lead laps and be one of the few trusted drivers that others feel confident drafting with. He’s had four straight top-5 finishes in the Firecracker and sooner or later, he is finally going to break through.

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