Kevin Harvick may be in his last year as driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing, but he and the No. 29 team showed Saturday night that they’re not lame ducks by winning the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, a race for 2012 pole winners and previous victors of the event. Harvick led 40 laps in the 75-lap race.
“What a great way to start off 2013,” Harvick said in victory lane.
The win was Harvick’s third in the event formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout and the eighth for car owner Richard Childress.
A fan vote determined the starting order for the race, as well as various aspects of the event format. By fans voting that the starting grid be based on number of poles won in 2012, with drivers winning the most poles last year starting up front, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin garnered front row starting spots. After wrecking in practice on Friday, though, both drivers went to back up cars and, therefore, had to drop to the back of the field for the green flag, putting Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle on the front row for the start of the first of the three segments of the event.
Matt Kenseth took the lead on lap three and remained up front for most of the opening 30-lap segment before Tony Stewart, with a push from Harvick, got to the front on lap 30 to win the first segment.
By the end of segment one, only 12 of the 19 cars that started the race remained on the race track, mostly because of a seven-car incident on lap 15. When Stewart and Marcos Ambrose made contact, both drivers continued on, but seven cars were collected in a pile up behind them.
The incident ended efforts by Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch. Martin Truex Jr. was also involved but was able to continue with minimal damage.
Of the incident, Martin remarked, “Gosh, we didn’t get very far along in there, did we?”
In addition to the six drivers out of the race because of the multi-car crash, Terry Labonte also headed to the garage early in the event.
After a mandatory four-tire pit stop following the first segment, also voted on by fans, Harvick got off pit road first, followed by Stewart, to start the second segment of 25 laps in the top spot. Soon after the restart, Stewart moved into the lead, but Harvick reclaimed the top spot on lap 34 (or lap 14 of the segment) and remained up front to claim the segment win.
Fans also had the opportunity to vote to eliminate a number of drivers following the second segment. Some 55 percent of fans voted to not eliminate anyone, but with the early wreck, as mentioned earlier, several drivers had already been eliminated.
“We at least handled the elimination part already,” Hamlin said soon after the incident.
Cars headed down pit road one last time before the start of the final segment, or last 20 laps, of the race, but went back out on the race track in the order they finished the previous segment, with Harvick and Greg Biffle on the front row and Joey Logano and Stewart restarting third and fourth.
As Harvick continued on up front, Kenseth moved up to the second spot soon after the race went back to green, but it wasn’t long before he lost the position to Stewart. Harvick was able to remain int he lead the rest of the way, but in the final laps, Biffle moved up to second to claim runner-up honors. Logano finished third, Stewart was fourth and Kenseth rounded out the top-five.
“I was reallly kind of nervous about the 20 (Kenseth) and the 14 (Stewart),” Harvick said. “I thought their cars were a little better than what we had.”
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR.