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Tony Stewart wins Daytona's 1st 150, but Danica Patrick has a scary crash; Matt Kenseth outfoxes Greg Biffle to win the 2nd 150

   Danica Patrick's car was destroyed in a very hard crash Thursday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Danica Patrick survived a frightening crash in her first Sprint Cup race, a victim Thursday of some tight in-fighting on the final lap of the first of two Daytona 500 qualifiers.
   Chevy's Tony Stewart, Patrick's new team owner, won the first 150 when the caution flag came for Patrick's crash after the field had taken the white flag for the final lap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was battling Stewart for the lead when the crash occurred. http://bit.ly/wa2Znd
    Ford's Matt Kenseth played his hand brilliantly the final miles to outfox teammate Greg Biffle and Regan Smith in a furious finish in the second 150, which otherwise was virtually devoid of the excitement of the first. http://bit.ly/wJ5IgJ


  The late yellow, for Danica Patrick's hard crash. And Tony Stewart wins Thursday's first 150 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "It happened really quick," Patrick said after being checked out at the infield hospital. "You can imagine -- it was getting down to the end of the race, and everyone was on everybody's door.

   "It felt pretty big; I don't know what it looked like."
   It looked downright scary: Patrick was on the inside of a three-wide in the big pack, running about 10th or 12th, when Jamie McMurray, on the outside in the fourth turn, squeezed Aric Almirola low, and Almirola was forced into Patrick. Her car went sliding very fast across the infield asphalt and slammed the infield softwall extremely hard.
   Patrick's car was destroyed.
  Patrick, finishing 16th, will thus have to start the 500 from the back of the pack.
  "Maybe the backup car will be faster," she said with a slight laugh.
   The first 150 went relatively uneventful after an early crash 11 laps into the 60-lapper, with drivers turning to single-file race to save fuel, in what was developing into a gas mileage race. A late yellow for Michael Waltrip's solo spin with nine laps to go allowed drivers to pit for fuel.
   However that yellow proved long enough for Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards to skip that pit stop and stay at the front of the pack for the restart with five laps to go.
   Earnhardt took the lead heading into the last lap, but then Stewart came storming back. But before anyone could line up a final charge, Patrick crashed, ending the race at that point.
   Stewart is still looking for his first Daytona 500 win, but this 150 victory was his 17th at Daytona International Speedway. Only one man has won more Daytona races than Stewart now, and that's the late Dale Earnhardt, with  34.
   "I don't think we were that close on gas, as long as we didn't get a green-white-checkered," Stewart said.
  The first major incident of the one hour race came when Michael McDowell tangled with David Gilliland in heavy traffic, and Gilliland's car shot up the track into the wall, collecting Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard.
   Menard was not happy: "We've torn up two really good race cars, not of our doing. And they're going to tear up a hell of a lot more. They are probably going to blow up a few (engines), the way things are right now (with NASCAR rules limiting engine cooling).
   "NASCAR is trying to dictate physics -- physics says two cars are going to push, and they're trying to make rules changes to keep us from doing it. So it's a hybrid of pack racing and tandem racing. It is causing a pretty unsafe situation."

   In the second Thursday qualifier Biffle was leading with two laps to go, and Smith, last year's
Southern 500 winner, right behind him, and Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson
just behind them.
   In the trioval coming to the white flag, Kenseth, with a big push by Jimmie Johnson, launched a run to the outside in the trioval, and Biffle moved up to block. That left two lanes open on the
bottom, and Kenseth cut right across Biffle's rear to take the lead to start the final lap.
   However it appeared Kenseth had made his move too early, and there
was vigorous scrambling behind him the last two miles. Kenseth zigged
and zagged to foil the challengers, who wound up banging hard on each
other, as Kenseth slipped away.
   Kenseth's move to the lead at the white flag by diving inside Biffle, in retrospect, was the only move he could have made. Kenseth, pushed blindly by Johnson, was closing so fast on Biffle that Biffle's block could have triggered a huge crash. And Kenseth's zigzag to the inside likewise could have triggered a huge crash.
   That, however, was about the closest to any disaster in the second 150, with Kenseth saying the crashes in the first 150 probably left drivers a little gunshy for the second 150.

   Robby Gordon had a most eventful run, but he rallied to make the 500, with his run in the first 150. His car was throwing smoke at the start, apparently from oil. But he rallied in the scramble at the end to finish fifth.
   "My life today is never a calm day…and if you're having a calm day, in this economic climate, you're going to be passed," Gordon said. "You need to be on the gas every day."
   Gordon took a jab at NASCAR's champion's provisional rule, which allows the most recent past champion to get a free pass into the 500. "I think that rule should be limited only to champions who are with the team that they won the championship with," Gordon said. "Otherwise it takes away from teams that are working very hard to make this race."
   What the champion's provisional rule has done is allow past Cup champions to deal for rides with anyone who needs to make the race. The men vying for the champion's provision here are Terry Labonte, the 1984 champion, and Bill Elliott, 1998.
   "This is not a slam at Terry, because I have utmost respect for Terry," Gordon said. "But it's just not right to get a free ride like that, when the rest of us have to bust our butts."
   Gordon has one of the smallest teams in the sport, maybe only seven full-time, he says. "We're in a bad state right, it's really, really tough, and we don't have anyone (sponsorship) on the hook," Gordon says.
   Another issue this week is the engine temperature situation. NASCAR has limited water pressure for SpeedWeeks, hoping the excessive engine heat would force drivers to back off and not run in the two-car drafts. However many drivers have expressed worries about blowing engines
   Gordon said NASCAR should consider opening up the grills, to allow engines more air. "An engine is happy at 220 degrees, or 210, but I was 230 all day," Gordon said. "I crossed the line and the water was 265."


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