DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Harvick kicked off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway by throwing a block party to win the Sprint Unlimited, the first race of his final season behind the wheel of the No. 29 Chevrolet fielded by Richard Childress Racing.
“That’s one for the lame ducks, right?’’ Harvick radioed to his crew. “It’s just a matter of how many we can get.’’
On the 75th and final lap, Harvick blocked takeover bids by Tony Stewart, who looked inside on the backstretch, and by runner-up Greg Biffle, who went high in Turn 3. Joey Logano finished third in his first race behind the No. 22 Ford of Penske Racing, while Stewart finished fourth.
“He kind of shut the door at the top and that’s what Kevin needed to do to win the race,’’ Biffle said.
The Sprint Unlimited, a non-points paying race among the 2012 pole winners, incorporated fan interaction to help shape the format of the three-segment race.
Fans used their mobile devices to vote on a race of 30-, 25-, and 20-lap segments, a 19-car starting order based on the chronological order of last season’s pole victories, a four-tire pit stop after the first segment, and no elimination of cars after the second segment.
The opening 30-lap segment was marred by a nine-car mishap on Lap 15, which knocked out defending Unlimited champion Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and Mark Martin.
Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet triggered the wreck when he tried to clear the No. 9 Ford of Marcos Ambrose and clipped its nose. Stewart got loose on the apron, but recovered it to win the first segment.
Harvick led all 25 laps to win the second segment, and led all but one of the 20 laps in the final segment to set the stage for his dramatic last-lap save.
“I’m glad we got Speedweeks started off in the right way,’’ Harvick said.
Patrick angling for pole
Danica Patrick emerged as a strong contender to win the pole for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 with an impressive show of speed in a pair of Sprint Cup practice sessions Saturday.
Patrick, who started 29th and finished 38th in her Daytona 500 debut last year, was third fastest in the first session in her No. 10 Chevrolet. She went 195.359 miles per hour, and bettered that lap in the second practice, topping the speed chart at 196.220.
“I suppose being the fastest going into qualifying is as good as you could hope for,’’ said Patrick, who will queue up eighth in the qualifying order during Sunday’s time trials, which will determine the top two starting positions in the 43-car grid. The remainder of the field will be set after Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, a pair of 150-mile qualifying heats.
Asked what it would mean to win the pole for the Daytona 500, Patrick said, “It would be really nice . . . There are other [poles] throughout the year that as a driver you feel more pleased or proud of yourself to get. This one is a whole team effort.’’
ARCA off and running
John Wes Townley captured the pole and his first career ARCA Series victory, making a three-wide pass on the outside of Turn 2 on the last lap of the 80-lap race to tow runner-up Kyle Larson, who started 11th, across the finish line. “It’s one thing to win your first race in the ARCA series and it’s another to win at Daytona,’’ said Townley, who treated car owner Billy Venturini to his first trip to Victory Lane at Daytona. “But wow, when I took the checkered flag, what an exciting day.’’ . . . Twenty rookies represented half of the field in the ARCA opener. Among them was Clay Campbell, the president of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, who started 24th and finished 14th in the No. 08 Ford . . . Milka Duno of Caracas, who qualified second fastest, wound up 28th after completing 76 laps. After Friday’s qualifying, Duno was asked if she followed Patrick. “Oh, no,’’ Duno replied, tauntingly. “I have 10 years in racing and I have more wins than her.’’ . . . Saturday’s ARCA opener was the last ride for 78-year-old driver James Hylton, who started 38th and finished 26th.Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.