DAYTONA BEACH — Kevin Harvick knew his cars were good enough to get either he or Tony Stewart into Victory Lane.
Once Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out, their path was wide open.
Stewart, nicknamed "Smoke," held off Carl Edwards, Harvick and Justin Allgaier on Saturday to win the Nationwide series opener at Daytona International Speedway for the fifth time in six years. Three of those wins have come in a car owned by Harvick.
The Drive4COPD 300 was Stewart's 15th win in a stock car 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, where he starts sixth today.
But his effort was overshadowed by Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut and Earnhardt's spectacular crash.
All eyes were on Patrick, a media sensation despite only one win in five IndyCar seasons, since her first practice last week. She was running around 25th when a 12-car accident took her out on Lap 70 of 120.
Patrick ducked low to avoid the wrecking cars in front of her. But she hit a car then the wall and spun in the infield 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.
An even bigger multicar wreck eliminated her car owner, Earnhardt, in spectacular fashion.
Edwards and Brad Keselowski were side-by-side when both drifted to the center of the track and Keselowski hooked the rear of Earnhardt's Chevrolet. Earnhardt hit the wall then flipped onto his roof, skidded on the track, got hit by several other cars and slid through the grass before landing on the wheels.
He was unhurt and emerged from the infield care center in an unusually jovial mood for a driver who had 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 said, joking.
The Earnhardt and Patrick accidents sent both JR Motorsports cars back to North Carolina in crumpled heaps, a costly setback for a team still seeking sponsorship. Patrick's 13 races are sponsored, but Earnhardt might 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.
After an 11-minute red flag for Earnhardt's accident, Stewart took command and led the final 24 laps.