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Kevin Harvick scores win in first Daytona qualifying race

Harvick Led 23 Laps in Dominating Performance; Patrick Finishes 17th

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Kevin Harvick celebrates in victory lane after winning the first Budweiser Duel. (USA TODAY Sports)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Danica Patrick may have the headlines for her historic qualifying effort, but Kevin Harvick may now have the more envious position heading to Sunday's Daytona 500: favorite.

Harvick pressed his No. 29 Chevrolet to a definitive victory in the first of two Budweiser Duels at Daytona Thursday, easily holding off Greg Biffle after a caution in the final ten laps packed the field together for a potentially dramatic shootout. Instead, Harvick – who took the lead from Trevor Bayne with 23 laps to go in the 60-lap race – pushed by Biffle on the restart and then sealed the bottom lane from any challengers to take the checkered flag. The twin 150-mile races set the the 43-car field for the Daytona 500.

"It's been great start to Speedweeks, obviously," Harvick said.

Harvick, starting his final season driving Richard Childress Racing, now has two wins in two tries in Daytona in the last six days after also handily winning Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited exhibition race. He also appears to have the strongest car in the garage as he tries to take his second win in NASCAR's biggest race, and will start third behind Patrick and Jeff Gordon.

[Related: Danica Patrick flying high personally and professionally]

Patrick, the most talked about story in NASCAR since she qualified her No. 10 on the pole last Sunday for NASCAR's biggest race, was never a factor in Thursday's qualifier and finished 17th. However, she accomplished her biggest goal of not crashing her pole-winning car that struggled with handling from the start.

"Once I dropped back, I just hung there," Patrick said. "I was really tight."

"It ended up being like a test session."

The same couldn't be said for Bayne, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Regan Smith. Hamlin, riding the faster top line on Lap 53, lost control in Turn 2 and spun down the track. He caught the rear end of  Edwards' No. 99, and caused a chain-reaction melee that ensnared Bayne and Smith. Juan Pablo Montoya caught some contact in the crash, but managed to keep the car straight and eventually finished third.

"You've just got to be precise with this car," Harvick said.

Aside from Harvick, Bayne was the only other driver to lead laps in the first race Thursday after pacing the first 37 circuits. The incident that took Bayne out reminded him of Daytona Speedweeks in 2011 – the year Bayne shocked the racing world by becoming the youngest-ever winner of The Great American Race.

"The same thing happened in 2011 when we qualified third and got crashed out in the Duels," Bayne said. "Maybe we can win the Daytona 500 now."

Edwards wasn't feeling as upbeat after the crash, as he has now crashed four times at Daytona since practice opened last Friday.

Michael Waltrip and Scott Speed filled the final two transfer spots from the first qualifying race, meaning they'll race in Sunday's Daytona 500. Brian Keselowski, who lost the draft early, never could replicate the magic he had in 2011 and will miss Sunday's race. His brother Brad, the defending Sprint Cup champion, finished seventh. Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on the final lap after the side window fell out of his car and was scored one lap down in 19th.

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