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Hot/Not: Kevin Harvick Lurking in the Bushes of NASCAR’s Title Race

Harvick is Riding an Impressive Nine-race Streak of Top-10 Finishes

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If Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was actually the ninth race of this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Brian Vickers' win would have mostly been a footnote. Instead, Kevin Harvick's seventh-place finish Sunday would have brought NASCAR's top series within one event of crowning its fourth different series champion in the same amount of years.

But of course Vickers' win wasn't in the Chase and it was the culmination of a pretty neat story of return and retribution. Lost in Vickers' win, however, was that Kevin Harvick continues to race and finish in a manner that would make him an ugly foe to face in the coming championship fight.

Harvick was seventh Sunday, recording his ninth-straight top-10 finish since he was crashed out at Talladega Superspeedway on May 5. The streak has led to an incredible jump in the point standings for Harvick - he's up a series-high eight spots in the points during the stretch - and puts the No. 29 in open defiance to all that think the 2013 season will be little more than a re-coronation of Jimmie Johnson as champion.

That still could very well happen, but Harvick isn't going to make it easy.

In that stretch, he's scored an impressive 346 points (38.4 per race) to vault to fourth in points. That's 22 more points than Clint Bowyer - the second-best driver points-wise in the nine race span - and 33 points more than Jimmie Johnson. Kyle Busch has been the fourth-best driver since Talladega, but he would trail Harvick in the hypothetical Chase standings by more than 55 points.

Harvick, of course, has benefited from some slip-ups in the Johnson camp over the same period. There was the penalized restart at Dover that left Johnson 17th at the checkered flag, the flat tire in the final laps at Michigan that left the driver No. 48 in 28th and then the botched late restart at Kentucky that put Johnson 9th at the end. All told, if Johnson scored expected points in those events, he's likely not spotted Harvick 33 points in the span.

Regardless, Harvick and the No. 29 team aren't letting the pending upheaval of that team at season's end factor in performance. Harvick announced at New Hampshire that he's officially heading to Stewart-Haas Racing's No. 4 Chevrolet in 2014.

Instead, Harvick is showing that Johnson's imminent reign on the NASCAR crown isn't quite so. Mr. Five Time isn't going to roll over and play dead for the field with the Chase begins in September, but he's not going to run and hide with it either.

HOT: I'll give another call to Brian Vickers for taking the surprise win on Sunday. Easily the most impressive part of his day was surviving the green-white-checkered finish. Holding his line on the outside of Turns 1 and 2 with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch on the bottom is no small task.

NOT: I would've appreciated TNT making a more concerted effort to actually show the debris that brought out the late caution flag.

HOT: Jeff Burton's third-place finish was just his sixth top-5 run in the last three seasons. He scored six alone in the season prior (2010). It's nice to see the intelligent and affable Burton not struggle for once.

NOT: I wasn't as enthused as most with Morgan Shepherd setting the record at age 71 as the oldest driver in to start a Sprint Cup race in history. His entry and subsequent struggles throughout the 92 laps he completed was more a testament to how fewer race teams can afford to race at NASCAR's top level. The problem is even worse as you go down the sport's rungs.

NEUTRAL: After recording four consecutive top-10 finishes In April and May, Aric Almirola's been a bit disappointing since. Sunday's fifth-place run was his first finish back in the top-10 since Talladega.

NOT: I'm fine with Kyle Busch not liking Ryan Newman. But his random comments following Sunday's race calling Newman an "ogre" and a "stupid idiot" seemed hapless, childish and redundant. Certainly Busch can express his dislike for a competitor with a bit more tact and intelligence, right?

HOT: Front Row Motorsports put two cars in the top-20 (David Gilliland 18th and David Ragan was 19th) on a track that didn't have restrictor plates. That's a decent weekend for a small team with only 14 total finishes in 433 total starts better than that.

HOT: Also on the small team front, Joe Nemechek's bare-bones operation could almost be called a success story from the land of start and park racing. Nemechek finished 25th Sunday and on the lead lap, marking the first time since he drove for Furniture Row Racing in 2008 that he recorded consecutive top-30 finishes.

The Stenica Showdown Cup!

We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple performs against one another. The highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earns a point. Each driver can earn a bonus for doing just about anything else, racing related or not.

Well, we officially have silence at the Patrick-Stenhouse dinner table. It's not clear entirely what Danica did to lose control during Sunday's race, but whatever happened she broadsided both Bboyfriend Stenhouse and Travis Kvapil. Kvapil, irritated that Patrick's mistake wrecked him, retaliated on track and likely won't be getting any invitations to a Patrick-cooked and Pinterest-inspired dinner.

We'll say this officially gets Patrick and Stenhouse even from the Charlotte kerfuffle, and award one point to Stenhouse for not getting wrecked as bad and finishing higher. He's officially off Charlotte probation, too, though that's more because we just now remembered he was on it. Good thing it's an off week!

Current standings:

1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 18 points (34th at Loudon)

2nd - Danica Patrick., 12 points (37th at Loudon)

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