NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth celebrates his victory in the first Sprint Cup… (Jeff Siner / McClatchy-Tribune )
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The first Budweiser Duels were downgraded to something with a little less buzz at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night.
Obviously, nobody was drinking. And for sure everyone was driving responsibly, trying to avoid any major dust-ups that could derail plans for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Matt Kenseth won the first 150-mile sprint race in an exciting three-wide finish featuring Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne as his major threats. The difference in first and third place was 0.063 seconds.
The second race looked about the same for 591/2 laps until Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas, triggering a multi-vehicle pileup that included Clint Bowyer, whose car went flying on the last lap.
Denny Hamlin won the race as he stayed ahead of all the wreckage.
"I think we've all done a pretty good job at tearing a few things up along the way so far," Harvick said. "I think everybody was a little bit conservative. I think obviously there was only 18 cars in the Unlimited and we tore the whole field up.
"Everybody wanted to do what they had to do to get the best finish that they could. Obviously, those of us running up front tried to win the race. It just didn't time out exactly perfect."
Harvick's car later failed the post-race inspection because it exceeded the maximum split on the track bar. Harvick will still compete in the Daytona 500 based on his qualifying time or owner points provisional.
The duels set the starting grid for Sunday's race beyond the first two spots, already secured by pole-sitter Austin Dillon and outside man Martin Truex Jr.
Kenseth has raced hard all week and has emerged as a legitimate threat to win his third Daytona 500 title. And so is Hamlin, who won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night.
"It's a good start for the week," said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's been long time since we won the 500. We're due."
Kenseth has felt a bit like a marked man because he was in the middle of two big crashes. He wasn't making a lot of friends in the garage.
"It makes up a little bit for the rest of the week," he said. "The rest of the week I haven't been very coordinated. I felt bad walking in the garage every day, honestly. Glad to get the win here tonight. These guys really deserve it — they worked hard on this thing."
The first race wasn't nearly as dramatic as the Sprint Unlimited, which had multiple crashes and only eight cars finishing. Nor did it have the drama of Wednesday's practice, when Parker Kligerman's car ended upside-down during practice after Kenseth slid into Joey Logano and started a chain-reaction crash involving six cars.
That's understandable. These cars are fast and delicate. Side-drafting is in vogue now, meaning the car slightly behind can get an aerodynamic push by moving closer to the rear wheel of the car it's trying to pass. But it can become dicey because if they get side by side, both cars slow down. Very quickly.
"It's like putting the brakes on, exactly like putting the brakes on," Harvick said. "When you go to go by a car, basically the front air off the car that you are passing packs up against your rear spoiler and just slows the car down. It's very effective with this package and made for an exciting finish tonight."
Look for the driving dynamics to change big time Sunday afternoon.
"It will be exciting and there will be a lot going on when people want to race," Kahne said. "When you get more cars in the pack, it's obviously going to be more intense than it was tonight."