Is Harvick Daytona 500 favorite?

Can anyone beat Kevin Harvick in Sunday’s Daytona 500?

After watching Harvick win both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night and the first Budweiser Duel qualifying race Thursday, it’s clear that “Happy” has the dominant car for Speedweeks’ premier race on Sunday (Noon ET on FOX).

The No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team dialed in the car during cool conditions for the Unlimited and again on Thursday when temperatures rose by 30 degrees to the mid-70s at Daytona International Speedway. Despite the dramatic changes in the track and starting the 60-lap race with his car a little loose, Harvick described his car as “manageable.”

In 20 laps, Harvick was running 10th. While many of his fellow drivers struggled with handling, Harvick was able to use that to his advantage and side-drafted the competition over the next 18 laps.

By Lap 37, Harvick passed Trevor Bayne for the lead. While he relinquished the point momentarily in the pits, it didn’t take Harvick long to regain command of the race and his first Duel victory.

“You’ve just got to be precise in your moves. If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle you just can’t go anywhere,” said Harvick, who will line up third for the Daytona 500. “The only place you are going is backwards. It’s hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake. Usually you go back several car lengths — you’ve just got to be precise about making the right moved.”

Daytona International Speedway has always been considered a handling track compared to Talladega Superspeedway — NASCAR’s other restrictor-plate venue. But with the new Generation 6 cars, Harvick believes the current style of racing is reminiscent of pack racing from a decade ago.

“It’s just like it was 10 years ago,” Harvick said. "It really is. It’s the same way we used to race with the old style cars, no roof fins, nothing on top of them. It’s the same style race. Handling even is coming into effect as we’ve seen in practice and the race today … Both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air and try to keep ‘em even.

“That’s the best way to keep ‘em at bay is to keep ‘em side-by-side … I think for us, I want to be in the front and be in control of what’s going on. If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft — you have options as the leader. That’s the position I want to be in.”

Certainly, the old style of racing will play into the hands of Harvick and other veteran drivers, such as Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth that cut their restrictor-plate track teeth navigating big packs in the draft.

One such veteran, four-time Cup champino Jeff Gordon, had a strong car on Thursday as well. He led 38 laps in the second Duel before a speeding penalty took him out of contention and he finished 12th. Kyle Busch capitalized on Gordon’s misfortune to score his second Duel victory.

Busch isn’t ready to engrave Harvick’s name on the Harley J. Earl trophy just yet. Busch agrees with Harvick that Sunday’s winner of the Great American Race will be “whoever gets out front.”

“I hate to say that,” said Busch, who will roll off fourth on Sunday. “These cars so far have shown it’s a little bit harder to pass the leader, especially if you’re the guy that’s on the topside. We showed it again in the second Duel race. Jeff Gordon chose the top, even though he was supposed to be on the pole, chose the outside lane. Him and I, we got going a little bit better than the inside lane. Kasey kind of moved up then … I went low because I thought he would run low, but he stayed up high to get behind Jeff. I got shuffled out a little bit.

“It’s all circumstantial. If you can keep the good restrictor-plate guys like Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, if you can keep those guys out of the lead, it might be anybody’s race. But anytime you get a good, smart racer up there like that, it’s going to be hard to beat ’em.”

Kasey Kahne, who raced against Harvick in the Unlimited and watched him in the first Duel, agrees that the No. 29 Chevy SS is stout. In his Duel against Busch, however, Kahne discovered that while he was able to pull out into the inside lane on the last lap, he wasn’t able to give Busch a run for the win. But considering the depth of Hendrick Motorsports and how well Busch worked with Kenseth, it would be foolish to discount their chances.

“Kevin looks really good,” said Kasey Kahne, who finished second in the second Duel. “I always think Kevin is one of the guys to beat, when we come to Daytona especially. He’s got this place figured out, for a long time he has. He showed that they’re really fast. He understands this type of racing really well.

“I think he can be beat, yeah. I felt like my car, Jeff, the 18 (of Busch), there’s a few of us in the second race there that had really good cars, I could move around really well, similar to what Harvick looked like in the first one. It will be interesting. But, yeah, Kevin’s going to be good.”

Life in the pits

Gaining an advantage on pit road is nothing new. But given the complexity of pack-style drafting, devising the best pit strategy for Sunday will be the difference in who wins the race.

“Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday,” Tony Stewart said. “That’s going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You’re going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day.”

Certainly, teammates that can remain on the same pit cycle will also be able to get up to speed and return to the draft. It was clear that drivers that lost the draft on Thursday were left behind.

But entry and exit onto pit road came into play as well during the Duels when a lack of communication boxed out Ryan Newman during his stop. After leading a lap early, Newman was just fortunate to finish.

That wasn’t the case for Busch — an expert at working the timing lines on pit road. Thursday’s effort was no exception. The No. 18 team put Busch in position for the win.

“I felt like I got a really good pit-road entry,” Busch said. “I felt like I ran good pit-road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyotas, which was great.”

With an assist from Matt Kenseth, Busch was able to hold on to the point for the win.

Numbers game

1: Budweiser Duel trophy for Kevin Harvick, whose best finish in the qualifying race was second (2010) before Thursday’s win.

2: Drivers will have to pack up and go home – Brian Keselowski and Mike Bliss

15: Budweiser Duel victories for team owner Richard Childress.

Say what?

After Austin Dillon finished third in the second Duel on Thursday, and locked down an eighth-place start for his Daytona 500 debut, he said:

“This is an awesome feeling and I’ll always remember the first one.”