DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Sprint Unlimited turned out to be very much so.
With the 19-car field decimated by an early wreck, Kevin Harvick did some masterful rear-view mirror driving Saturday night to hold off Greg Biffle and win NASCAR’s unofficial Sprint Cup Series opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Joey Logano finished third, Tony Stewart was fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.
“I just kept the thing at the top (of the track) and I knew (Stewart) was going to try to get by me getting into (Turn) 1,” Harvick said in Victory Lane.
“Then the outside (Biffle) got a huge run and we were able to block that run. I’m glad we got Speedweeks off to a great start.”
The race was the first with the 2013 model series cars, which feature far more manufacturer identity.
“I think you just have to be patient with the car. I think handling was a lot less of an issue for us than we had anticipated. That caught us a little off-guard,” said Harvick, who won this event for the third time in five years.
“There’s still a lot to be learned with a whole pack of cars and we’ll kind of get into that with the Duels and then the big race next Sunday.”
Biffle said his No. 16 Ford was off “a little” on speed and he found it difficult to keep pace with Stewart, Kenseth and Harvick.
“When you get in that position all you can do is stay in line because your car gets real draggy and slow. That being said, I had a great opportunity and a good run on (Harvick) on the top,” Biffle said.
“I was pushing and shoving him a little bit and had loosened up, but he just closed the door.”
Fans took early control of the race, voting to line up the field based on when drivers won their first poles last season. They also voted to run the race in segments of 30, 25 and 20 laps.
Carl Edwards, who won the pole for the 2012 Daytona 500, was to start from the pole Saturday but had to move to the rear of the field because he wrecked during practice Friday and was forced to a back-up car.
Mark Martin and Kurt Busch also moved to the back for the same reason, which allowed Kasey Kahne to lead the way at the start.
Terry Labonte parked his car after four laps to reduce the 19-car field to 18 before it took a bigger hit on Lap 16 when Stewart triggered a wreck that eventually collected nine cars – including Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart went on to win the segment. Fans then voted for all drivers to make a mandatory four-tire pit stop and Harvick was the first off pit road to take the lead.
Fans also voted to have no cars eliminated but the earlier wreck had already contributed to seven cars sitting in the garage.
Teams made pit stops during a two-minute break before the final 20-lap segment. Each driver restarted the final segment in the same position in which he finished the second segment.
Harvick maintained the lead as the field took the green on Lap 56.
With five laps remaining, Harvick continued to enjoy a solid advantage, followed by Stewart, Biffle, Aric Almirola and Edwards.