Leading every lap but one in the final segment of The Sprint Unlimited, Kevin Harvick held off Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart to win Saturday night’s season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway for the third time.
On the last lap in what was the debut race for NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car, Harvick blocked Stewart on the inside and moved back up the track to block Biffle, who was perilously close to sending Harvick’s No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet into the fence.
Biffle ran second, Joey Logano took third, and Stewart — his momentum broken by Harvick’s block — finished fourth. Matt Kenseth finished fifth in his first competition for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Harvick’s victory was his third in five races, following back-to-back wins in 2009 and 2010. Though Harvick will leave RCR at the end of the season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing next year, he said the impending job change is of no consequence on the track.
“I think it’s one of those deals, where, for us, it’s about winning races,” Harvick said in Victory Lane. “The politics and everything are one thing, but when we get to the race track, it’s about sitting in this race car, making it as fast as it will go.”
Harvick may not have had the fastest car — in fact, he thought the Stewart’s Chevy SS and Kenseth’s Camry were slightly better — but he made the critical moves at precisely the right times, particularly when it came to blocking Biffle.
“In the middle segment, I could tell that Biffle was backing up and trying to time what his move was going to be as we got further into the segment,” Harvick said. “So I was working on my timing to kind of back up and block that.
“Those guys (Biffle and Logano) were coming on the outside, and I don’t know if the 14 (Stewart) and the 16 (Biffle) were side-by-side, but I just felt like I needed to move up and block that momentum, and we were able to block two of those moves.”
Biffle said he thought about trying the outside lane entering the final corner but wasn’t sure he had enough room.
“I thought about sticking it in there, and it just didn’t look like it was going to work to me,” Biffle said. “It looked like it would be sparks and parts flying. He shut the door on the top. That’s what Kevin needed to do to win the race. I looked in the mirror and didn’t have anyone pushing me.”
An incident-free 25-lap second segment, won by Harvick over Biffle, set the starting order for the final 20-lap dash for the victory. By the end of the segment both Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had lost touch with the 10-car pack ahead of them, but caution between the second and final segments bunched the field for a restart on Lap 56 of 75.
The first segment, on the other hand, featured plenty of action.
On Lap 15, the halfway point, a nine-car incident ruined the winning chances of nearly a third of the field. Stewart turned down across the nose of Marcos Ambrose’s Ford near the apex of Turns 1 and 2. Stewart saved his No, 14 Chevrolet, but drivers behind him checked up, seeing sparks trailing from the rear of Stewart’s car.
The ensuing wreck destroyed the cars of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota was nicked in the melee, but he was able to continue, as were Stewart and Ambrose.
In fact, Stewart’s car was fast to enough to take the lead on the final lap of the first segment, and he held it to the finish line. During the planned caution between segments, the 12 remaining cars came to pit road for mandatory four-tire stops — a requirement dictated by a fan vote.
Fans voted to set the starting lineup for the race according to the chronological order in which drivers won their poles. That put 2012 Daytona 500 pole winner Edwards in the top starting spot and Martin, winner of the pole at Phoenix the following week, on the outside of the front row.
Both Edwards and Martin, however, had to drop to the rear for the start, because neither driver practiced his back-up car after a wreck in Friday’s opening Sprint Unlimited practice forced a change of equipment. Accordingly, Kasey Kahne led the field to green, with Biffle beside him.