DAYTONA BEACH — Kevin Harvick thought he could win the debut race of NASCAR's new Gen-6 car, and he had a solid reason for his confidence.
"Nobody in the whole field had any clue what was going to happen," he said, "so we felt like we had a good chance."
Harvick dominated Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited exhibition, winning the kickoff to Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway for the third time in five years. Harvick tied Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett as three-time winners of the event; the late Dale Earnhardt holds the record with six wins.
But no one has a firm grasp on what the opening Daytona 500 will look like in NASCAR's new car. The nonpoints race Saturday only had 19 cars at the start, and the field was whittled down to 12 after an early accident.
The 500 next Sunday will start with a full 43-car field, likely in much warmer conditions.
"It's going to be a pack, absolutely," Harvick said. "I don't think there's going to be too many chances. You'll see some cars break away. I think if you turn on a 2000 race, one of those races, it's going to be very similar."
Second-place finisher Greg Biffle agreed the 500 should have a throwback feel.
"I heard some guys talk about old-school racing, and it is a little bit like that," he said. "The thing about it is that when you get 43 cars out there, it is going to be a ton different. Then the bottom lane is going to work. There will be a middle. With more cars out there, I think it will be better."
Saturday's race was somewhat uneventful because of a nine-car accident just 15 laps in. It turned the final two segments into something resembling a parade until a late push.
Harvick threw blocks on Biffle and Stewart, Joey Logano couldn't get to the leaders, and Matt Kenseth, who might have had the strongest car, faded late as Harvick rolled to the win. He led 40 of the 75 laps.
The race formerly known as the Bud Shootout was split into three segments and fans got to vote on the format. The result was 30 laps, 25 laps and then a 20-lap sprint to the finish.
But several big names were knocked out early. Stewart was second when he cut across the front of Marcos Ambrose, making slight contact that turned Stewart sideways and required a save. Traffic stacked behind him, triggering a nine-car crash that wiped out seven cars.
Taken out were defending winner Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs Racing, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson from Hendrick Motorsports, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch.
"I didn't see much. I was just cruising along and I saw sparks in front of me — I knew that wasn't good," Johnson said.
It was a costly crash for Kurt Busch, who also wrecked in practice Friday and has two damaged race cars just two days into Speedweeks. His Furniture Row Racing team was getting assistance from Richard Childress Racing on car repairs to ensure Busch has enough in the fleet to get to the Daytona 500.
Stewart, who took responsibility for triggering the crash, led at the end of Segment 1.
"I made a move for the lead and probably was a little anxious too early," he said.
Fans then voted for the drivers to make a four-tire change between the first and second segment, and it was largely Harvick's race from there.
It's a strong opener to Harvick's final year with RCR. He's already signed on to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Biffle finished second and Logano third in his Penske Racing debut. Stewart was fourth and Kenseth fifth in his JGR debut.
1 — Daytona 500 qualifying
Noon — Sprint Cup practice
2:30 — Sprint Cup practice
9 a.m. — NASCAR Nationwide practice
10:15 — Nationwide practice
12:10 p.m. — NASCAR truck practice
2 — Sprint Cup Duel 150s (two races, 60 laps and 150 miles each). TV: Speed
11 a.m. — Daytona 500 practice
12:30 p.m. — Daytona 500 practice
1:40 — NASCAR truck qualifying (two laps, all positions)
3:35 — NASCAR Nationwide qualifying (two laps)
7:30 — NASCAR trucks NextEra Energy Resources 250 (100 laps, 250 miles). TV: Speed
10:30 a.m. — Daytona 500 final practice
1:15 p.m. — NASCAR Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 (120 laps, 300 miles). TV: ESPN
1 p.m. — Sprint Cup Daytona 500 (200 laps, 500 miles). TV: Ch. 13