Kevin Harvick defended his lead on the last lap masterfully Saturday night and held on to win the NASCAR Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway.
The move was a remarkable one in a race that seemed to be an otherwise unremarkable debut for NASCAR's new Generation 6 race car. That debut was nearly ruined early in the three segment 75 lap event when Tony Stewart touched off a multi-car melee that took out many of the top contenders.
On lap 14 after charging through the field with Matt Kenseth firmly in the lead, Stewart tried to take the second place spot from Marcos Ambrose. Stewart came down in front of Ambrose as the field entered turn 1 and the rear of the Chevy tagged the front of Ambrose's Ford. The cars checked up behind them and set of a crash that ultimately involved an additional seven cars. Denny Hamlin, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon were done for the night. Both Stewart and Ambrose were able to continue.
"I didn't see much," Johnson said. "I was kind of cruising along and I saw sparks in front of me. I knew it wasn't good. Then before I knew it just the cars inside of me and around me, everybody just slid up the race track and into me and around we went."
Harvick took the lead during mandatory pit stops at the start of the second segment from Matt Kenseth who dominated the first segment. When the green flag fell on the second segment the remaining 12 cars led by Harvick seemed to settle down to wait for the end.
The race become more sedate as the field fell into a single file line with the only real action coming midway through the segment, when Stewart dropped down and tried to make a run to the front. But after making contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart dropped back in line. Earnhardt quickly fell back to the rear of the field and the single line strung out once more.
At the end of the second segment, the field was brought down pit road and teams had two minutes to work on the car. The field lined back up in the order they came across the line at the end of the second segment with Harvick reassuming the lead.
Harvick was able to hold off challenges over the course of the final twenty laps from Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart and on the final lap one final run by Stewart and Greg Biffle to win his third Sprint Unlimited in nine starts.
"I was nervous," Harvick said. "I thought their cars were a little bit better than what we had, but I want to thank Sprint and the race fans. Good way to start off Speedweeks."
Biffle was scored second, Joey Logano third, Stewart fourth with Matt Kenseth who looked strong early in the race coming home fifth.
"I had a run on him at the top there and he closed the door," Biffle said. "Kevin (Harvick) did what he had to do to win that race. I'm happy to come home second. I have been so close so many times her at Daytona. It would feel nice to win one."
Harvick, who is reportedly in his last season with Richard Childress Racing, now joins Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett as a three time winner of the event; he has also won three of the last five Sprint Unlimited events.