Matt Kenseth survived mayhem around him Saturday night to win his first NASCAR Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. Crashes involved over half the 25 car field and left only 11 cars running at the end of the 75 lap non-points race.
Polesitter Paul Menard led the first three laps but Brad Keselowski was fighting for the top spot by lap 4 on the inside; he fell into second a lap later but charged back forward on lap 7. Keselowski broke out into the front on lap 8 followed by Kenseth. Kenseth moved up to the high side and took the lead for the first time on lap 10. Martin Truex Jr. soon took over the point from the outside and soon he and Kenseth were dueling for the lead. Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved into second on lap 12 as Kenseth settled into third. Soon Kenseth was fighting Tony Stewart for third.
The top three remained the same as those behind dueled side by side, two and at times three wide. Kyle Larson moved to challenge for second on lap 20. As the scheduled caution neared at lap 25, the top 10 broke out into a single line.
On lap 22 as the front of the field crossed the line, Larson got loose and into Keselowski who was sent into the outside wall; Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon got together both suffering minor damage, all but Keselowski were able to continue. The first round of stops came on lap 26 during the first caution and Earnhardt who took no tires, won the race off pit road, Menard was second, Truex third. A large group behind came in and topped off fuel prior to the green flag coming back out on lap 29.
Earnhardt and Menard held station side by side with Earnhardt getting an advantage. On lap 31 Truex fell into second, Menard went to third. The top seven soon broke away into a single line and it wasn’t long before the line stretched back to 12th place. Jamie McMurray led a line on the inside and slowly began to close on the lead. By lap 39 the bottom line had caught the front and the pack formed again. Truex retook the lead on lap 40. Behind him the rest of the field was two by two. Earnhardt dove in for a pit stop on lap 42 with debris on his grill and a engine threatening to overheat. He topped off with fuel and cleared the front end. Up front McMurray took the lead for a lap then Truex retook the lead as Gordon took over second on lap 44. On lap 45 however, a multicar crash took out a large swath on the field. Greg Biffle was pushed by Joey Logano who was sent into McMurray. The ensuing melee involved 14 cars. NASCAR threw the red flag on lap 47 and parked the survivors on pit road.
The red flag was lifted after 15 minutes. Truex led the survivors off pit road followed by Gordon and Logano. A total of 18 cars out of the original 25 took the green when it came back out on lap 49. Truex took a clear lead but slid back and forth between the upper and lower lane to defend his lead. By lap 52 Truex held the lead as a single line began to break out but behind him an inside line raced to the front. On lap 54 Kenseth took the lead with a diving move entering turn 1; Truex fell into second as Carl Edwards took over third, Stewart was fourth.
Gordon and Danica Patrick were side by side for fourth. Stewart fought his way forward and took over second on lap 59. By lap 61, Kenseth held the lead, Truex and Edwards were side by side for second.
On lap 61 Austin Dillon and Rickey Stenhouse Jr. got together in turn three after Stenhouse spun. Patrick suffered damage but was able to continue as the third caution flew. Dillon and Stenhouse were done for the night.
Kenseth continued to lead, Edwards was second, Truex third, and Casey Mears fourth. The restart came with 9 laps to go. Kenseth broke out to the front as Edwards began to drop back. On lap 67 the fourth caution of the night came out when Stewart came up and got loose in front of Kyle Busch; when the smoke cleared a total of four cars including Stewart, Gordon, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch had all suffered damage; Biffle, Busch, and Stewart were done for the night. The red was displayed again on lap 69 and out for just over five minutes.
The green flew with four laps to go. Kenseth and Edwards were side by side up front. Kenseth shot to the lead and began to pull away. Truex and Kevin Harvick slid into second and third with Truex having a slight advantage. Edwards was soon under Harvick for third as Truex held second and was looking for the lead.
Kenseth, Truex and Edwards were in a line as the field crossed the line for the white flag and the final lap. Harvick tried one more run exiting turn four but got into the wall and lost momentum. Kenseth was able to pull away as Edwards and Truex fought side by side; Kenseth, a two time Daytona 500 winner, went on for his first Sprint Unlimited win as Truex held off Edwards for second.
“This is a great feeling. It’s always fun to win at Daytona for sure – it’s fun to win anywhere,” Kenseth said. “I had a feeling that it was going to be a good week. We have a lot of racing left to do, but all our cars have speed, which is the first thing we look for.”
Mears was fourth, and Larson was fifth. Logano came home sixth, Gordon seventh, Kyle Busch eighth, Earnhardt ninth and Patrick tenth. The full results can be found here.
In perhaps a precursor to the season, and a reminder of the last, Harvick and Logano bumped cars on the cool down lap, then faced each other down on pit road. The tow drivers exchanged unpleasant words before they were pulled apart by crew members.
2015 Daytona Speedweeks TV and track schedule Feb. 16-22