A moment of panic (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were the big players in the first night of real racing with these highly-touted 2013s, but Saturday night's Sprint Cup sprint, the 187-mile Unlimited/Shootout, was surprisingly uneventful.
Harvick blocked a last lap bid by Biffle on the high-side down the frontstretch to win the third leg of the three-leg, oddly formatted race, a 30-lap run.
So give Chevy the first win of the new season, and Biffle said his Ford needs more speed.
The man with the most speed was clearly Toyota's Matt Kenseth, but his two teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, were both knocked out in an early crash.
That crash, triggered by Stewart blocking Marcos Ambrose on the backstretch, also took out Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch.
That crash left only 12 men running, in the event for last season's pole winners. (That format left series champ Brad Keselowski and runner-up Clint Bowyer watching from the sidelines.)
Kevin Harvick over Greg Biffle at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Harvick worked very well throughout the 80-minutes race with soon-to-be teammate Stewart. "I felt Matt had the strongest car; he could make a lot happen down on the bottom by himself," Harvick said. "I was glad when he got shuffled out."
Harvick held the points most of the last two segments, though Kenseth made several bids, futilely, on the inside to get back to the lead.
The first segment was all Kenseth, who at one point fell to the back and yet charged back to the lead.
The second segment and third segment were all Harvick, with Stewart almost playing body guard. Harvick's sponsor, Anheuser-Busch/Budweiser, sponsored this event for some 30 years, but gave up that sponsorship at the end of last SpeedWeeks. Harvick is expected to bring the Budweiser sponsorship with him to Stewart's team for 2014.
Harvick foiled Stewart's own last lap move, but he couldn't shake Biffle.
However Biffle, after getting to Harvick's rear bumper with about a mile to go, had no drafting partner to help him in making a move. And Biffle said that, while he saw an opening he could try to force to the inside of Harvick, he declined to press the issue, for fear of triggering a big crash.
Kevin Harvick: no lame duck here (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The night was quite chilly, and Harvick said that may have improved handling.
"Handling was a lot less of an issue than we expected. That caught us off-guard," Harvick said. "Handling may be more of an issue as the week goes on."
Because temperatures are expected to rise. Next weekend's Daytona 500 is expected to play out in 80-degree weather.
Drivers said they didn't see any engine temperature issues, which had been a problem the last few years here. "But it was cold tonight," third-place finisher Joey Logano said.
Biffle, though conceding he was down on speed, said he felt he had a good opportunity to beat Harvick.
"I really felt like I did," Biffle said.
"I had a run on him on the top, and he kind of closed the door. He did what he had to win the race. I was against his bumper but couldn't really do anything. I looked behind me for help, but there was no one there.
"We were just off on speed. Unfortunately when you get in position like that, all you can do is stay in line.
"I was pushing and shoving, and got him loose. I thought about sticking it in there, but it didn't look like it was going to work. Looked like it was going to be sparks and parts flying.
"I was against his bumper and I was going to make a move to the inside, but I didn't have anyone being me. Guys tend to fall off pretty quickly."
Jimmie Johnson was caught up in the big crash. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"The big question is how are y'all going to get Ricky and Danica on the frontpage tomorrow," Harvick cracked afterwards. "You all were so busy being TMZ the other day that you ignore us....and ignore us and we can be real difficult."
Harvick laughed, after his reference to the Ricky Stenhouse - Danica Patrick romance story.
The big crash? Stewart was moving down either to block Ambrose or to launch a run on Kenseth. Stewart's nose tagged Ambrose.
"I got a big run, and I went to the bottom," Stewart said. "I thought I was clear. 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 Ambrose).
"I made a move for the lead, and probably was anxious too early. But I was kind of stagnant where I was, and I was having fun moving forward and felt racy."
Kenseth said he was surprised with the tone of the shootout, and said he was curious why drivers didn't try more passing.
"We had a really strong car, I just couldn't get back in that position," Kenseth said. "Nobody (else) was having any luck on the bottom (which was where Kenseth was so strong).
"We almost had it two or three times; I almost had them cleared...but the line behind me got three-wide or something, and it just stalled out the bottom.
"We learned a lot...but I still think it's going to be a different race Thursday (in the twin 150s). It's going to be warmer, and there will be more cars on the track."
Teammate Hamlin agrees: "If we get a sunny 70-degree day, the handling in the 500 will be an issue just halfway through a fuel run."
Finishing behind Harvick, Biffle, Logano and Stewart: Kenseth, fifth; Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, and Carl Edwards.
Edwards was running fifth at the finish but was penalized to the last spot among men still on the track after he didn't stop for a black flag after losing his driver safety net.
Sprint put on a sound-and-fury pre-race show. Surprisingly the race itself didn't have much for fireworks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski's analysis, from the TV booth high above the track: "We saw Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, the guys who really drive aggressively, rewarded. That is a key thing.
"We also saw Greg Biffle make a great move for the lead at the end -- but Kevin drove more aggressively and made it work, and that's what won him the race."
However Kyle Busch wasn't pleased with all that aggressiveness. Of the wreck that took him out Busch blamed it on "overzealous" driving. Taking out that many good cars just 15 laps in, he said was "too many too early."
Kyle's analysis of the grooves at play: "Some guys were trying to block the middle, so you go around them on the top. Some guys are trying to block the top, so you go by them in the middle.
"In practice we've seen the top lanes dominant....but tonight we're seeing the bottom lane dominant."
Daytona under the lights. Wonder how Talladega under the lights would look? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Joey Logano, who played it smooth and cool and finished third, with a possible shot at the win, said drivers had to be aggressive "because we know if we get shoved out of line, it will be really hard to get back up there. We do everything we can to protect what we've got. And I think everyone is just getting back into the rhythm of it too."
These guys last raced in late November.
With the new models, teams are short of cars and parts, and these new cars aren't that easy to fix. So manufacturing and logistics is a big issue. Kurt Busch, for example, has torn up two cars in two days. Busch's team has an engineering arrangement with Richard Childress, who owns Harvick's cars.
"We have eight cars here, and three back at the shop," Childress said. "We'll do whatever we have to help Kurt and his team."
Harvick said drivers may be having trouble with their left-side mirrors, which are located differently on the new models.
In their run Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin showed no bit of Harvick being a lame duck. "The politics are one thing...but when we get to the track, it's about sitting in this car and making it go as fast as it will go," Harvick said.
Kevin Harvick was so exuberant in his victory burnout that he broke the transmission and needed a push to victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)