DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kevin Harvick has become a “Master of Daytona” but it has been in the wrong race.
Harvick won Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited by holding off a last-lap charge from future teammate Tony Stewart, who attempted to pass Harvick on the backstretch of the final lap. Stewart made the move too soon and that allowed Greg Biffle’s Ford to move up to second. Harvick went on to defeat Harvick by .149 seconds in the three-segment, 75-lap race.
It was Harvick’s third victory in the Sprint Unlimited. His lone Daytona 500 win came in 2007. He has won three of the last five Sprint Unlimited events joining Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett as three-time winners of this non-points race. Dale Earnhardt is the all-time leader with six victories in this contest.
Joey Logano’s Ford was third in his first race for Penske Racing. Stewart finished fifth in a Chevrolet.
Harvick, who is entering his final season at Richard Childress Racing, gave the team its eighth victory in the Sprint Unlimited (previously the Budweiser Shootout and the Busch Clash).
“I was nervous about the 20 (Matt Kenseth) and the 14 (Stewart),” Harvick said. “I thought their cars were a little bit better than what we had. It’s a good way to start off Speedweeks.”
And it is also a way for Harvick and Childress to show that even in their final season together don’t call them “Lame Ducks.”
“I think it’s one of those deals, where, for us, it’s about winning races. The politics and everything are one thing, but when we get to the racetrack it’s about sitting in this race car making it as fast as it will go. And those guys, they don’t care about anything but winning and wanting to do good, so we owe it to them and everybody at Budweiser. I guess we had to take their name off the race to win it, so it was an awesome day for us.
“Those guys don’t care; they just want to win. The atmosphere is great. They just want to win races. You have to be professional whether it is lame duck or not. We’re going to have a hell of a lot of fun and do our jobs. We’re all here to do a job and we have a responsibility to the people who spend millions of dollars to put their name on these cars.”
Harvick led the race three times for 40 laps. Biffle led once for two laps before he finished second. The Roush Fenway driver gave the new race car a positive review and expects more to come throughout the week.
“I like the car; I like the way it drives,” Biffle said. “You can’t push somebody unless somebody has shoved you up to the back of them. You can stay on them but when you get to a certain speed they magically drive away from the front bumper. If you have somebody behind you that is the only way you can get up there and give them a good shove.
“When you get 43 cars out there it will be a ton different. The two-car tandem is definitely gone. You’ll get some bump drafting when somebody pushes you up there. Can’t be the fastest all the time.”
Many of the big names in the race were taken out in a nine-car pileup on lap 16 which decimated the number of cars running in the 75-lap contest. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin were all taken out in the crash. The others involved were able to continue in the race.
“I didn’t see much,” five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I was just kind of cruising along and I saw sparks in front of me. I knew that wasn’t good. Then before I knew it was just the cars inside of me and around me everybody just slid up the race track and into me and around we went. I am disappointed that it was that early in the race but I’m not sure why it happened.”
Hamlin tried to explain what he saw.
“It looked like whatever happened with Tony Stewart, whether he got hit or just go loose, it looked like some guys were starting to fight handling issues just a little bit right before the wreck happened,” Hamlin said. I wish we could have ran a little bit more but it’s part of this race and we at least handled the elimination part already.”
Stewart was the leader after the first 30-lap segment. The field came in to make a pit stop during that sequence and Harvick was able to advance through the field with a fast pit stop. Stewart remained at the front when the second segment took the green flag.
Harvick would be in front of Biffle, Logano and Stewart at the end of the second segment on lap 55.
Harvick would lead the field to the green flag at the start of the decisive 20-lap segment that would determine the race. Stewart was able to move into second place one lap later to team up with Harvick, who will move over to Stewart’s team in 2014.
With two laps to go the side window net on Carl Edwards’ Ford flew off and NASCAR issued the black flag. He was running in fifth place but was dropped to 12th – the last car on the lead lap.
Stewart attempted to go low under Harvick but was blocked by the leader as he drove on to the checkered flag.
“Sorry guys, I gave that away,” Stewart said.
“That’s all right,” crew chief Steve Addington said. “We learned all night long what will work next Sunday in the Daytona 500.”
“I learned a lot,” Stewart said. “The good news is I have 500 miles to work with next Sunday.”
So while Harvick was able to celebrate another victory in the first official contest of SpeedWeeks, the other drivers used Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited as a learning experience for the Daytona Duels on Thursday and next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“Nobody in the whole field had any clue what was going to happen so we thought we had a good chance to win,” Harvick said. “The first chances we had to take tonight were in the race.”