Harvick holds off late pretenders

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The final lap was a pretty good show, as Kevin Harvick pulled a spectacular double block of Tony Stewart low and Greg Biffle high to win Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited.

But other than that, and one predictable "big one" in the first of the three segments … well … Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The debut of NASCAR's "Gen 6" car design wasn't much of a preview, largely because only 19 cars started the race and six were knocked out in a pileup on the 15th lap, leaving little experimentation to be done in packs.

Also, due to 40-degree weather and excellent grip, "there were zero handling issues tonight," Harvick said, after much anticipation that the new cars would be squirrely.

Harvick led 44 of the final 45 laps before he finally had to work for the win briefly, justifying his remark via radio to his crew just after the checkered flag.

"That's one for the lame ducks, right?" he told them. "Now it's just wait and see how many we can get."

Harvick is beginning his final season with Richard Childress Racing before joining Stewart's team next year. So there had been much conjecture that Harvick and RCR just wouldn't be enthusiastic enough about each other to put together a decent 2013 season.

But Harvick said of his crew, "They don't care" about the status of a contract. "They just want to win. The atmosphere is great. And we have to be professional whether it's lame duck or not."

"This is too much hard work to be miserable, too much hard work not to go out to win," said Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin.

Stewart, Harvick's boss-to-be for 2014, detonated the early melee when he tried to dive inside Matt Kenseth for the lead in the first segment. Stewart got into Marcos Ambrose and set off a chain reaction behind him, taking out Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.

After that, the race was a snoozer until the final lap. Kenseth dominated the first segment before Stewart took the lead at the end of that one. Harvick led all 25 laps of the second segment and 19 of the final 20, losing the lead only briefly to Kenseth.

Kenseth kept on threatening until the end, but whenever he would get alongside Harvick, Kenseth's new Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota just couldn't push past -- as if it was hitting a wall of air.

Kenseth was trying on the bottom lane, which didn't work all evening, and finally got shuffled back.

"I felt like he had the strongest car," Harvick said, "and he could make a lot happen on the bottom by himself, so I was glad to see him get shuffled back."

That left Stewart, Biffle and Joey Logano as Harvick's only serious pursuers on the final lap.

First, Stewart got a run on the bottom and Harvick blocked him, but then here came Biffle on the high side. So Harvick slid up in front of Biffle, leaving the Biff a choice between backing off or wrecking them both.

Harvick said it was simpler than it looked.

"With the top, you could guard the bottom if they didn't get all the way by you with the side draft," Harvick said, referring to what Kenseth had kept trying but falling short. So Harvick guarded the bottom easily on Stewart's final charge.

Then, Biffle said, "I had a good run on the 29 [Harvick] on the top. I was pushing and shoving on him. I had room on the top but he just closed the door. … I thought about sticking it in there, but it just didn't look like it was going to work to me. Looked like it was going to be sparks and parts flying. So he just kind of shut the door at the top.

"That's what Kevin needed to do to win the race," Biffle said resignedly, without complaint about Harvick's move.

This was Stewart's second restrictor-plate race in a row for causing "big ones." This past fall at Talladega, he took out most of the field, including himself, on the final lap.

This time, he accepted the blame again. Going for the lead on the 15th lap, "I got a big run on the No. 20 [Kenseth's new number] and I went to the bottom," Stewart said. "I thought I was clear. The spotter did not clear me so I went on my own. I thought I had enough of a run to be clear of the third-place guy [Ambrose]."

There could have been one more big wreck, had Biffle chosen to press the issue with Harvick on the last lap.

In retrospect, "You wish you'd tried it," Biffle said. Then again, "You're kind of glad you didn't. Obviously, if we'd both wrecked in a pile of parts, neither one of us would have gotten anything out of it.

"And I was about 99 percent sure that's what was going to happen."