DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - In a newly named race with a new car and an odd new format, it was an old veteran who ended up with the trophy.
The 2013 Sprint Unlimited may not have been the most competitive of races — indeed, it often seemed about as fiercely fought as a split-squad spring training baseball game — but Kevin Harvick took control early on, dominated through the final two segments, and closed off the race with an absolutely perfect finishing move. Harvick has now won three of the last five Sprint Unlimited/Bud Shootout events, and appears to be one of the first drivers to have figured out the new Gen 6 car.
"Nobody in the whole field had a clue what would happen," Harvick said, "so I figured we had a chance."
NASCAR tried to inject some added life into the event by giving the fans power over the race format, the first pit stop and the possibility of elimination. But in every case, the fans took the most conservative approach, going for a balanced race length (30 laps/25/20), a full four-tire pit stop and no eliminations. (To be fair, an early wreck took out six of the best drivers, and Terry Labonte started-and-parked in an exhibition event, leaving only twelve cars.)
But the on-track result was more tentative than aggressive. Driver after driver tried to figure out exactly how the combination of Gen 6, a clean track and cool temperatures combined, and more often than not the pack slimmed into the dreaded single-car train. Only a few drivers — Harvick, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano — actually made moves throughout the race. And while Kenseth may have had the strongest car of the entire field, he wasn't able to get help to get a shove back up to the front, and ended up fifth.
But reaching Harvick is one thing; passing him is quite another. With Stewart challenging him low and Greg Biffle pushing high, Harvick pulled off a slick double-block, running three wide all by himself, to hold off both drivers. The only way to beat Harvick would have been to take him out, and neither driver was prepared to do that.
"When you're coming from white to checkered, it's whatever you take," Harvick said. "You get whatever you can. A game of chicken would be a good way to put it."
“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." Biffle would end up finishing second; Logano got past Stewart for third.
The race took an early hit when Stewart set off a chain reaction that took out six cars: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.
"I thought I was clear," Stewart said. "The spotter did not clear me, so I went on my own and I thought I had enough of a run to be clear of the third-place guy and I'm pretty sure I clipped whoever was in third. So I made a move for the lead and probably was anxious too early ... I was kind of stagnant where I was at, and I was having fun moving forward and felt racy."
It was a quirk of the race format that the reigning Cup champion, Brad Keselowski, wasn't even in the race. Wearing a suit and commenting for Fox, Keselowski demonstrated insight and humor, but obvious frustration at being on the sidelines. "I think we saw Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, the guys that really drive aggressively, are rewarded and that is, I think, a really key thing," he said. "We also saw that Greg Biffle made a great move for the lead at the end, but Kevin Harvick drove more aggressive and made it work and that's what won him the race."
The drivers learned a bit for the Daytona 500, but probably not enough to make a significant impact. The track will be more worn in by the time the 500 rolls around, and with temperatures expected to soar into the 80s, the track could offer an entirely different style of handling than drivers saw Saturday night. While tandem racing is likely done for good, huge pack racing could be the style all afternoon ... and there's usually only one way that ends.
Best guess? An edgy race early, an aggressive, to-the-wire one very late ... and a monstrous wreck somewhere in the middle that takes out some famous names. Get ready.
"It'll be crazy," sixth-place finisher Aric Almirola said. "Absolutely. 100 percent. What a wild race that will be."
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-