DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As he crossed the finish line in Thursday’s opening Gatorade Duel race, Tony Stewart watched the carnage unfold in his rear-view mirror.
His protege, Danica Patrick, had been nudged from the pack and slammed into the wall on the final lap with enough force to lift her Chevrolet off its four wheels.
“The good thing, with a fluorescent green car, she’s easy to pick out,” said Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion.
Stewart’s victory put him in the third spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500 behind Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Vancouver, Wash.-native Greg Biffle, who had claimed those positions in last Sunday’s qualifying.
Matt Kenseth, the 2009 Daytona 500 winner, won the second Gatorade Duel, giving Roush Fenway Fords three of the top four starting positions.
Patrick, who was assured of a starting spot in the Daytona 500 because of her owner points, veered across the track at the end of a chain reaction crash but emerged unhurt.
Jamie McMurray nudged Aric Almirola, who shoved Patrick, who went spinning into the wall at full speed. Patrick finished 16th in the race and will make her Sprint Cup debut on Sunday from the rear in a backup car.
“It happened really quick,” said Patrick. “You just have to brace yourself. I guess in these situations I just have to be glad that I’m a small driver and I’ve got room.
“It was just a chain reaction. … Every person that gets hit, next and next and next. I’m bummed out we didn’t finish the last two corners. … Maybe the backup car will be faster.”
It was a rude introduction to Sprint Cup racing for Patrick, a former IndyCar driver who will run 10 Sprint Cup races this year for Stewart-Haas Racing and a full-time Nationwide Series schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.
“It was a good lick she took, but she seemed pretty tough and came right out of there,” said Earnhardt, who finished second to Stewart.
Stewart, who won the Sprint Cup championship on the final lap of the final race last season and finished second in last Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, continued his momentum with new crew chief Steve Addington.
“ It’s good for the crew, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year,” Stewart said. “It gives you confidence going into Sunday. “
The victory also was Stewart’s 17th in a stock car at Daytona International Speedway, which is second all time to Dale Earnhardt’s 34 wins.
But Stewart has yet to win a Daytona 500 in 13 starts.
“Obviously the fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it’s good momentum, but it’s no guarantee,” Stewart said. “It’s a long race on Sunday, and a lot can happen.”