DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin Harvick knew his race cars were good enough to get either he or Tony Stewart into Victory Lane.
Once Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out of contention, their path was wide open.
Stewart held off Carl Edwards, Harvick and Justin Allgaier to win the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway for the fifth time in six years. Kevin Harvick Inc. owned the car he drove to victory Saturday, as well as in 2005 and 2006.
"They have always given us great race car, every time," Stewart said.
It was Stewart's 15th win in a stock car at Daytona, moving him into a tie with Cale Yarborough for third all-time at the storied track. He now trails only Dale Earnhardt (34 wins) and Bobby Allison (16) for most at Daytona.
"I would trade a couple of them just for a win in a Sunday race here," said Stewart, who is 0-for-11 in the Daytona 500. He'll start sixth in today's main event.
Stewart and Harvick clearly had the best cars from the moment they hit the track this week, making Harvick convinced he'd get a KHI win as either a driver or owner by the end of the race.
"Tony and I talked right before the race, and I said I didn't think they could beat both cars, as good as they were in practice," Harvick said. "Best car I've ever had here, and I think we worked a long time, a lot of hours in our speedway program, and it all paid off today."
But the effort was overshadowed by Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut and Earnhardt's spectacular crash.
Patrick announced Monday she would run the Nationwide race, basing her decision on a successful stock-car debut three days earlier in the ARCA event. So all eyes were on her from the first practice all the way through her involvement in a race-ending 12-car accident just past the halfway mark.
She was running in the middle of the pack when several cars wrecked in front of her, and Patrick tried to duck low to avoid them. But she couldn't dodge everything, slammed into the outside wall, and then spun through the grass.
"That just proves how hard it is out here, and how much there is to learn and how good all these drivers really are," she said.
Shortly after the media crush surrounding her in the garage began to dissipate, her car owner sent the cameras scurrying back outside with a frightening accident along the superstretch.
Edwards and Brad Keselowski were racing side-by-side when both drifted to the center of the track in an apparent attempt to claim the same spot of real estate. As they bounced away from each other, Keselowski hooked the rear of Earnhardt's car to send his Chevrolet into the wall and then upside down onto its roof.
He skidded along the track, where he was tagged by several other cars, before sliding through the infield grass and finally rolling back onto its wheels. He took the mandatory ambulance ride to the infield care center, and emerged in an unusually jovial mood for a driver who had just rolled his car.
"You don't want to flip one upside down and it not be spectacular. You don't want to waste your opportunity, right?" Earnhardt joked. "It's good to flip upside down every once in a while, but it's just too expensive for me."
The Earnhardt and Patrick accidents sent both JR Motorsports cars back to North Carolina in crumpled heaps, a costly setback for a team that is still seeking sponsorship. Patrick's 13 races are sponsored, but Earnhardt may have to pay out of his own pocket for the No. 88 to run a full season.
"We're going to have to go back and balance our books after that. This has been a rough day for JR Motorsports," he said. "We do our books by the month pretty much, and kind of know where we are financially. We were looking for about $400,000 between now and the end of the season, trying to work that in somehow and find that or cut that somewhere.
"We just knocked ourselves back a few steps. It was an expensive day for us."
After an 11-minute red flag for Earnhardt's accident, Stewart took command and led the final 24 laps for his third consecutive Daytona victory. Among his 15 victories are wins in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, the Daytona 500 qualifying races and the July Sprint Cup Series race.
"Doesn't matter what kind of car it is, it's always an honor to win at Daytona," he said. "After 15 of 'em now, there's one I haven't won, and that's the Sunday show," Stewart said. "So, you know, I would trade a couple of races, I'd let anybody pick which ones they want to trade out, I'd trade any one of 'em for a Sunday race for sure."
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla.
Today, 10 a.m. TV: FOX