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 NASCAR Sprint Cup series 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 this year. He also won an exhibition race last weekend.
“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 car. Sunday’s race will go off with a full 43-car field, about double the number 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, thinks 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 action while drivers continue to learn the new cars and how they react in traffic and different aerodynamic situations.
“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,” he said. “If you can get your car handling, driving, feeling good, you’ll be able to be one of the guys that’s up front.”
Busch held off Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne and learned that the driver out front is in the strongest position.
“It’s hard to pass the leader,” Busch said.
But Kahne said timing will be critical, and nobody is sure yet what move will be needed to win the Daytona 500.
“I think it’s tough because you don’t know when you get that push. You don’t know when it plays into your time,” Kahne said. “I think you need to be ready at any time to get to the front, to second, to third, try to move up. I don’t think waiting till the last lap is a ticket the way things are right now.”
In the first race, Harvick held off Vancouver, Wash., native Greg Biffle over a four-lap sprint to win.
The starting field for the Daytona 500 is set by the results from the pair of 60-lap qualifiers, but Danica 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.
“I hate coming to the end like that and just lagging back,” she said. “That’s not fun. But it’s also really ignorant to go drive up into the pack and be part of an accident for absolutely no reason.”