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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 season-opener.
"We like to be the lame-duck underdog. That's what we're shooting for," Harvick said.
Harvick is a perfect 2 for 2 at Daytona International Speedway. He also won an exhibition race last weekend. This strong start comes at a time when Harvick has found a balance in his life with the addition of son, Keelan, who was born last July, and as he heads into his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick has already decided to move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
"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 race car. Sunday's race will go off with a full 43-car field, double the amount 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, believes 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 much action as drivers continue to learn the new cars and how it reacts in traffic and different aerodynamic situations.
"With more cars out there, we might see it be a little bit different come Sunday," Busch said. "There were half the field in each race, obviously. 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. If you can get your car handling, driving, feeling good, you'll be able to be one of the guys that's up front."
Is Busch, who was wrecked out of last week's exhibition just 15 laps into the race, one of those guys?
"I feel that's where we're at," Busch said. "That's an added bonus for us right now."
Busch gave Toyota its first victory of Speedweeks and snapped Chevrolet's dominance. Harvick took the new Chevrolet SS to Victory Lane twice, and Danica Patrick put it on the Daytona 500 pole in time trials.
Busch held off Kasey Kahne, in a Chevrolet, and learned the driver out front is in the strongest position.
"It's hard to pass the leader," said Busch. "Stay out front. When you get out front, you can hold everyone off."
But Kahne, who settled for second, said timing will be critical and nobody is sure just 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," said Kahne, who never got close enough to Busch to take a solid shot at the win. "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."
And Kahne wasn't ready to give Harvick the win in the big race, either.
"I think Kevin looks really good," he said. "He's got this place figured out. I think he can be beat, yeah. There's a few of us in the second race who had really good cars, and I could move around really well, similar to what Harvick did in the first race."
In the first race, Harvick held off Greg Biffle over a four-lap sprint to win. Harvick and Biffle also went 1-2 in last Saturday night's exhibition race.
The starting field for the Daytona 500 is set by the results from the pair of 60-lap qualifiers, but 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.
She started first in the first qualifier, raced a bit early, then faded back to run a conservative race and ensure she'll start first in the 500.
"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. You're really not going to learn much there."
Patrick wound up 17th out of 23 cars.
"What I really feel like I need to do is go down to the Harvick bus and see what he's doing," she said. "He's got it going on down here."
The first race was dull until Denny Hamlin brought out the only caution with seven laps remaining. Hamlin lost control of his car, spun into Carl Edwards and triggered a four-car accident that also collected Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne, who had a dominant car early in the qualifier.
"I know what the wrecks look like now, I am really familiar with them," said Edwards, who was wrecked at testing in January and in practice for the exhibition race last week. He was also black-flagged in the exhibition race when his window net fell off.
Hamlin said the accident was a product of drivers trying to learn the nuances of NASCAR's new Gen-6 car.
"It just shows you that any kind of bad aero position you put yourself in, your car can be vulnerable," said Hamlin, who was running in the high line when he inched into Edwards' space down low.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who infamously crashed into a jet dryer during last year's Daytona 500 to trigger a massive fuel fire, stopped for minor repairs during the caution. Montoya restarted the race in 13th with four laps remaining, but rocketed through the field to finish third.
"It was time to go," he said. "It's hard, you don't want to tear up the car, and at the same time you want to go. The bumpers are a little fragile. You have to be careful with that. You want to have a good car at the end."
The bulk of both races seemed to be one long parade of the Gen-6 race car. Unsure of how the cars handle in packs, and when the drivers choose to side-draft, most of the field in the first race played it conservatively.
"The choice was obviously made by a bunch of us to run around in circles and just make laps," said two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, who needed a clean race to guarantee a spot in Sunday's field. "There were a lot of people that just wanted to get through some laps and understand what was going on. There were some of us that would have run like that until they threw the checkered just to make the race. And then there were some that decided it was time to go, and they made it work."
Waltrip is racing in a special Sandy Hook Special Support Fund paint scheme, and his car number has been changed to No. 26 as a tribute to the 26 students and teachers killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
"There's a lot of people up in Connecticut with a smile on their face right now. I'm real proud to get in the race for them," Waltrip said.
Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, finished third in the second qualifying race to put his Richard Childress Racing car in the Daytona 500. It will be the 22-year-old Dillon's first Daytona 500.
"I'm glad my grandfather can sleep now," Dillon said. "He was wearing me out before the race."
Brian Keselowski, older brother of reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, was the one driver who truly had to race his way into the Daytona 500 in the first qualifier. But he lacked speed early, fell two laps down and missed the race.
Mike Bliss was the driver from the second qualifier trying to make the Daytona 500 field, but finished five laps down and didn't make the race.