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 as he heads into his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick has already decided to move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Hamlin said the accident was a product of drivers trying to learn the nuances of NASCAR's new Gen-6 car.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who 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.
The bulk of both races seemed to be one long parade of the new Gen-6 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.
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.