Kevin Harvick claimed the first win of the NASCAR racing calendar with victory in the Daytona Unlimited exhibition event at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.
It's the third time in nine outings that the Richard Childress Racing driver has triumphed in the pre-season race, having previously won back-to-back wins in 2009 and 2010 when the race was called the Budweiser Shootout.
Last year's event winner Kyle Buch was among six cars to exit the race after just 14 laps as a result of a multi-car accident, triggered by Tony Stewart moving down the track to try and get past current race leader Matt Kenseth but instead ending up getting clipped from behind by Marcos Ambrose through the apex of turns 1 and 2.
"I self-cleared myself, I guess," explained Stewart, admitting it had been his mistake. "I went down before the spotter cleared me. I thought I had a big enough run that I cleared second, but I obviously hadn't and I just barely nicked him. I just needed about two more inches."
Stewart was able to hold on to the #14 and avoid a wreck, but other cars behind him were caught out and a chain-reaction ensued that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt - the 2011 winner of the event - together with Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin who all took heavy damage in the accident.
"I didn't see much," confess Johnson when asked about the accident that sidelined him. "I was just kind of cruising along and I saw sparks in front of me. I knew that 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."
Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon was similarly caught out by the early incident. "I saw somebody loose on the inside and the outside lane somehow was affected by it and it was a domino by the time it got back to me and we were in it," he said. "I couldn't see much. We were in that bottom lane that just got shuffled back early and so we were just slowly working our way back up there.
"I saw handling started to become an issue for quite a few guys, a little bit for myself, but not too bad," he added. "I just saw somebody get sideways going down into (turn) one and then our lane checked up and they started getting turned and we started wrecking."
"Once someone bobbles, we're all on top of each other, so everyone's braking point and reaction time is going to be different,” said Denny Hamlin. "And then guys start getting run over. That was kind of the case.”
"Two days, two wrecked cars and only a few laps completed," contributed Kurt Busch after parking his #78 Furniture Row Racing car in pit lane. "It's been a disappointing start to say the least. But the good news is that we've had fast cars. If our luck can change we'll be competitive for the big show in next week's Daytona 500."
Martin Truex Jr. also sustained damage in the crash, but he was still able to continue, and Ambrose's car needed some work on it at the next pit stop to sort out some of the damage sustained in the initial contact with Stewart.
That wiped out a full third of the entries in the Unlimited, but apart from that one wreck the rest of the race went off according to plan. After the green flag flying at 8.30pm, the race had followed a 30/25/20-lap three segment format decided by a ballot of race fans. Other fan-decided aspects of the event included the selection of a full four-tyre pit stop at the end of the first segment, and no cars being eliminated before the final segment other than those already retired through race damage.
The vote starting order for the race saw the drivers line-up in the order in which they had won the 2012 pole position that made them eligible for the event in the first place. That would have put Carl Edwards and Mark Martin on the front row for the start, but an accident in practice on Friday meant that both men together with Kurt Busch had to drop to the back of the field before the start as a result of switching to back-up cars for the race.
Instead it was Greg Biffle who emerged as the initial leader, then Martin Truex Jr. put in a couple of laps in front before Matt kenseth emerged as the most dominant force by pushing to the front on lap 5 and maintaining the lead for the next 25 laps. However, that was one lap shy of making him the segment 1 winner, a surge down the backstretch on lap 30 assisted by a push from Kevin Harvick rewarding Stewart with the cash prize for getting to the line first.
The mandatory four-tyre pit stop saw Harvick win the top spot for the restart, followed by Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. With just a single exception harvick led every lap of the rather quieter second segment and picked up the cash for winning the middle stint of the race followed by Biffle, Joey Logano, Stewart and Truex Jr.
The one moment of tension in the second segment had been a near-miss between Logano and fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., which sent Earnhardt down the track in response and into light contact with Stewart's car. All three drivers survived the scare, although the #88 was slightly the worse for the experience.
Harvick and Kenseth resumed battle for the lead at the start of the third and final segment on lap 55; Kenseth did all he could on the inside line to take to the front at the green flag, but Harvick held him off with the advantage of having the outside position. One final push from Kenseth saw him poke the nose of the Joe Gibbs Racing #20 in front on lap 62, but it had taken everything he had and next time around it was Harvick back in charge again - and he stayed there for the remainder of the race thanks to some top-class blocking moves to ward off any threats.
On the final lap, the main threat to Harvick was Tony Stewart on the inside and Greg Biffle running on the outside, but Harvick managed to move his car around on the track enough to prevent either man getting a run on him to the chequered flag. Harvick's block on Stewart was enough to force the #14 to lose momentum to the extent that he lost positions to both Biffle and Logano and ended up in fourth place at the line.
“I wasn't quite sure exactly which move to make,” Stewart admitted of those final moments in the race. "I saw the #22 [Logano] coming on the bottom, I thought they were going fast enough that I needed to move down, but I should've stayed where I was," he said.
Biffle was equally sanguine about missing out on the win. "I thought about sticking it in there and it just didn't look like it was going to work to me," he said afterwards. "It looked like it would be sparks and parts flying. He shut the door on the top - that is what Kevin needed to do to win the race.
"I looked in the mirror and didn't have anyone pushing me," he continued. "I figured someone might give me a shove and I could try something else. We learned a little bit and we have a ways to go in our 500 car to try to be competitive [next] Sunday."
As for Harvick, he was delighted to walk away from Saturday night with the first race victory for the new Generation 6 NASCAR vehicle against his name.
"I'm glad we got Speedweeks started off the right way," he said. "I heard some guys talk about old-school racing, and it is a little bit like that," he added when asked how the new car felt on the cold Saturday evening, although he added that it would be a very different affair next weekend on Sunday afternoon with a full field of cars out on track.
"The thing about it is that when you get 43 cars out there, it is going to be a ton different," he explained. "Then the bottom lane is going to work. There will be a middle. With more cars out there I think it will be better."
Harvick wasn't about to apologise for any of the blocking moves that clinched him the race - even though one of them had been against his good friend and 2014 team boss Tony Stewart.
"When you're coming from white to chequered, it's whatever you have to do to try to make it happen," he said. "I guess a game of 'chicken' would be the best way to put it ... I'd flip my go-kart in my backyard on the last lap [to win]!"
It certainly puts paid to any ideas that Harvick's final season with Richard Childress Racing might be a lame duck affair. "I don't think it's been that big of a deal," insisted Harvick of his forthcoming change of teams at the end of the season. "Our guys, they don't care - they just want to win!"
Job done, then, and a great way to open the new NASCAR year. Now all he has to do is maintain that race-winning form for the 36 races of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
See full race results and starting order