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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kevin Harvick thought he could win the debut race of NASCAR's new Gen-6 car, and he had a solid reason for his confidence.
"Nobody in the whole field had any clue what was going to happen," he said, "so we felt like we had a good chance."
Harvick dominated Saturday night's exhibition Sprint Unlimited, winning the kickoff to Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway for the third time in five years. Harvick ties Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett as three-time winners of the event, while the late Dale Earnhardt holds the record with six wins.
But no one has a firm grasp on what the season-opening Daytona 500 will look like in NASCAR's brand new car. The non-points race only had 19 cars at the start, and the field was whittled down to 12 after an early accident.
The Daytona 500 will start with a full 43-car field in much warmer conditions.
"It's going to be a pack, absolutely," Harvick said. "I don't think there's going to be too many chances. You'll see some cars break away. I think if you turn on a 2000 race, one of those races, it's going to be very similar."
Second-place finisher Greg Biffle agreed the Daytona 500 should have a throwback feel.
"I heard some guys talk about old-school racing and it is a little bit like that," he said. "The thing about it is that when you get 43 cars out there, it is going to be a ton different. Then the bottom lane is going to work. There will be a middle. With more cars out there I think it will be better."
Fans hope so after Saturday night, which was somewhat uneventful because of a nine-car accident just 15 laps into the race. It turned the final two segments into something resembling a parade until a late push to catch Harvick.
Harvick threw a block on Biffle and Tony Stewart, Joey Logano couldn't get to the leaders and Matt Kenseth, who might have had the strongest car, faded late as Harvick rolled to the win. He led 40 of the 75 laps.
"I'm glad we got Speedweeks started off the right way," he said.
The race was split into three segments and fans got to vote on the format. The result was 30 laps, 25 laps and then a 20-lap sprint to the finish.
But several big names were knocked out a mere 15 laps into the race. 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 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.
"We're going to help them in any way we can," Childress said. "We'll probably have one of those cars back (Sunday), repaired. We got two or three more back at the shop."
Stewart, who took responsibility for triggering the crash, went on to "win" the first segment.
"I made a move for the lead and probably was a little anxious too early," Stewart said of his first segment gaffe.
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 Logano was third in his Penske Racing debut. Stewart was fourth and Kenseth fifth in his Joe Gibbs Racing debut.