It was Tony Stewart's good fortune to lead much of Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway -- because all hell kept breaking loose behind him.

In a race widely trumpeted as Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut, Stewart took the chequered flag 0.309 seconds ahead of 2008 series champion Carl Edwards.

In winning the season opener, Stewart achieved several milestones: he won the February Nationwide race at Daytona for the third straight time and fifth overall, and he claimed his sixth victory in the series on restrictor-plate superspeedways, tying Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the career lead in that category.

"There were some really good cars that got mangled up today," Stewart said, referring to crashes that damaged the cars of Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, among others. "We were just lucky to be in front when it happened."

Stewart led the final 20 laps under green after a restart on lap 101.

Kevin Harvick, who owns the #4 Chevrolet that Stewart was driving in his only scheduled Nationwide appearance of the year, finished third in his own #33 Chevy. Justin Allgaier came home fourth and Brian Vickers fifth.

Patrick lasted a little more than half the race. Just as she appeared to be getting comfortable while running with the lead draft, her #7 Chevrolet was damaged beyond repair on lap 68 of 120 in a 12-car wreck off turn 4 that began with contact between the #16 Ford of Colin Braun and the #61 Ford of Josh Wise.

"There's nothing you can do - you can't see anything," Patrick radioed to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. after sliding into a pack of cars turned sideways in front of her. "I was just starting to get it, too, man."

Patrick was credited with a 35th-place finish.

Earnhardt had a strong car, but his #88 Chevrolet was an innocent victim of a backstretch wreck on lap 92, which started when Edwards tried to squeeze into a small space in the outside lane. Contact between Edwards' Ford and Brad Keselowski's Dodge sent Keselowski's car spinning into Earnhardt's Chevrolet, which turned upside-down and slid on its roof before righting itself in the infield.

"We were having a real good run, and I felt good about our chances," said Earnhardt, whose company, JR Motorsports, also owns the car Patrick will drive in selected races this season. "I'll have to go back and balance the books - it was an expensive day for JR Motorsports."

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News