DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There are two certainties heading into the Daytona 500: Kevin Harvick is the favorite, and no one is sure what the action will look like in the “Great American Race.”
Harvick remained perfect through Speedweeks on Thursday by winning the first of two 150-mile Budweiser Duel qualifying races, and the victory has positioned him as the top pick to win NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Being labeled the favorite is the last thing the 2007 Daytona 500 winner wanted headed into Sunday’s season-opener.
“We like to be the lame-duck underdog. That’s what we’re shooting for,” Harvick said.
Harvick is 2 for 2 at Daytona International Speedway. He also won an exhibition race last weekend. This strong start comes at a time when Harvick has found a balance in his life with the addition of son, Keelan, who was born last July, and as he heads into his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick has already decided to move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
“We’ve been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks. We’ve just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we’ve done, just do the same things that we’ve done,” he said. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
But nobody is quite sure what the 500 will look like with NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car. Sunday’s race will go off with a full 43-car field, double the amount of cars that ran in Thursday’s qualifying races. There were 19 cars in last Saturday’s exhibition.
Kyle Busch, winner of the second duel, believes more cars on the track will create a much different race than what fans have seen so far. All three races at Speedweeks to date have lacked much action as drivers continue to learn the new cars and how it reacts in traffic and different aerodynamic situations.
“With more cars out there, we might see it be a little bit different come Sunday,” Busch said. “There were half the field in each race, obviously. There’s going to be twice as many good cars, twice as many middle-of-the-pack cars, twice as many back-of-the-pack cars. If you can get your car handling, driving, feeling good, you’ll be able to be one of the guys that’s up front.”
Is Busch, who was wrecked out of last week’s exhibition just 15 laps into the race, one of those guys?
“I feel that’s where we’re at,” Busch said. “That’s an added bonus for us right now.”
Busch gave Toyota its first victory of Speedweeks and snapped Chevrolet’s dominance. Harvick took the new Chevrolet SS to Victory Lane twice, and Danica Patrick put it on the Daytona 500 pole in time trials.
Busch held off Kasey Kahne, in a Chevrolet, and learned the driver out front is in the strongest position.
“It’s hard to pass the leader,” said Busch. “Stay out front. When you get out front, you can hold everyone off.”
The starting field for the Daytona 500 is finalized by the results from the pair of 60-lap qualifiers, but Patrick held onto the pole by running a safe race in the first qualifier. The first woman to win a pole at NASCAR’s top level, Patrick earned the top starting spot in time trials last weekend.
Patrick wound up 17th out of 23 cars.