DAYTONA BEACH, Florida Kevin Harvick claimed the first of two qualifying races Thursday to secure third spot on the starting grid for the Daytona 500 and establish himself as favorite to win Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup season opener.
With Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon having claimed the top two spots in initial qualifying last weekend, Thursday's two races set the rest of the grid for the season's showpiece event.
Only nine of Daytona's 54 previous pole winners have gone on to take the checkered flag -- about one in five,.
Harvick also won an exhibition race at Daytona last weekend and his strong performances give him a favorites tag for Sunday's race that he'd rather be without.
"We like to be the lame-duck underdog. That's what we're shooting for," Harvick said.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. We definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that."
But nobody is quite sure what the 500 will look like with NASCAR's new Gen-6 race car. Sunday's race will go off with a full 43-car field, double the amount of cars that ran in Thursday's qualifying races. There were 19 cars in last Saturday's exhibition.
Kyle Busch, winner of the second qualifying duel Thursday and fourth spot on the grid, believes more cars on the track will create a much more dynamic race than is usual for season openers, when drivers are becoming accustomed to new cars.
"With more cars out there, we might see it be a little bit different come Sunday," Busch said. "There's going to be twice as many good cars, twice as many middle of the pack cars, twice as many back of the pack cars. If you can get your car handling, driving, feeling good, you'll be able to be one of the guys that's up front."
Kasey Kahne, who settled for second behind Busch, said timing will be critical and nobody is sure just yet what move will be needed to win the Daytona 500.
"It's tough because you don't know when you get that push. You don't know when it plays into your time," said Kahne. "You need to be ready at any time to get to the front, to second, to third, try to move up. I don't think waiting till the last lap is a ticket the way things are right now."
And Kahne wasn't ready to give Harvick the win in the big race, either.
"He can be beat, yeah. There's a few of us in the second race who had really good cars, and I could move around really well, similar to what Harvick did in the first race."
In the first race, Harvick held off Greg Biffle over a four-lap sprint to win. Harvick and Biffle also went 1-2 in last Saturday's exhibition race.