DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Harvick won the first race of Speedweeks, dominating the final two segments of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited in the debut of NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car.
“I’m glad we got Speedweeks started off the right way,” said Harvick, who won Saturday night’s non-points race at Daytona International Speedway for the third time in five years.
But with only 19 cars in the field at the start of the race — and that was whittled down to 12 after an early accident — there wasn’t a great feel for what the Feb. 24 season-opening Daytona 500 will look like with a full 43-car field.
“We’ll have to wait a week and see what the weather is like,” Harvick said. “There’s still a lot to learn with a full pack of cars.”
There wasn’t a chance for that in the 75-lap exhibition race, which was split into three segments. Fans got to vote on the format and decided on 30 laps, 25 laps then a 20-lap sprint to the finish.
But several big names were knocked out a mere 15 laps into the race. Tony Stewart was running second when he cut across the front of Marcos Ambrose, making slight contact that turned Stewart sideways and required a save to keep from crashing. Traffic stacked up behind him, triggering a chain-reaction, nine-car crash that wiped out seven cars.
Taken out just 15 laps into the first segment were defending race winner Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs Racing, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson from Hendrick Motorsports, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch.
“I didn’t see much. I was just cruising along and I saw sparks in front of me — I knew that wasn’t good,” Johnson said.
It was a costly crash for Kurt Busch, who also wrecked in practice Friday and has two damaged race cars just two days into Speedweeks. His Furniture Row Racing team was getting assistance from Richard Childress Racing on car repairs to ensure Busch has enough in the fleet to get to the Daytona 500.
Stewart, who took responsibility for triggering the crash, went on to “win” the first segment.
Fans then voted for the drivers to make a four-tire change during a pit stop between the first and second segment, and it was largely Harvick’s race from there. He dominated the final two segments, and held off challenges from Stewart and Greg Biffle on the final lap to win in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
It’s a strong opener to what’s going to be Harvick’s final year with RCR. He’s already signed on to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
“It’s about winning races,” Harvick said. “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. And those (RCR) guys, they don’t care about anything but winning and wanting to do good, so we owe it to them and everybody at (sponsor) Budweiser.”
Budweiser was the longtime sponsor of the race, which was called the Budweiser Shootout until series sponsor Sprint took over the rights this year.
Harvick broke his engine trying to do a celebratory burnout and his car had to be pushed to Victory Lane.
Biffle finished second and Joey Logano was third in his Penske Racing debut. Stewart was fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth in his Joe Gibbs Racing debut.