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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Three months off and a crew chief change haven't slowed Tony Stewart.
In the first of two Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart took the checkered flag under caution a half-lap after Danica Patrick -- the driver he hired for a 10-race Sprint Cup schedule -- took a vicious hit against the inside wall on the backstretch.
Escaping an attempted block from Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth took the lead on the final lap of the second Duel -- a caution-free race -- and held off Regan Smith for the win.
Stewart and Kenseth claimed the third and fourth starting spots for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. They'll line up behind pole-sitter Carl Edwards and Biffle, who swept the front row for Roush Fenway in last Sunday's time trials at the 2.5-mile track.
Kenseth, the 2009 Daytona 500 winner, claimed the first Duel victory ever for Roush Fenway. Smith came home second, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler and pole-sitter Greg Biffle.
Stewart's 15th victory at Daytona in NASCAR's top two series combined, including three in Duels, three in the Budweiser Shootout, three in the July Sprint Cup race and and six in the Nationwide Series. Counting two wins in IROC competition, Stewart has 17 stock-car wins at Daytona, second on the all-time list.
Thursday's victory was Stewart's first with crew chief Steve Addington, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. On Sunday, they'll attempt to claim the one prize that has eluded the three-time Cup championâ€”a victory in the Great American Race.
"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 after the race. "It's nice to come here, especially for Steve and I, being our first race together, to be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back-to-back (including a second-place run in last Saturday's Budweiser Shootout).
"It's good momentum for the crew, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, to carry that momentum from last year. It gives you confidence going into Sundayâ€¦ It's a long race on Sunday, and a lot can happen.
"I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That's a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully that will work for us on Sunday, too."
The caution flew after Stewart had led the field to the white flag, with race runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. in hot pursuit. Contact from Aric Almirola's Ford launched Patrick's Chevrolet toward the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch, and impact with the wall was hard enough to lift all four wheels of Patrick's car off the pavement.
Patrick will go to a backup car for Sunday's race and must start from the rear of the field.
Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek transferred into the Daytona 500 with 12th and 17th-place finishes in the second Duel. Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon finished sixth and ninth, respectively, in the first qualifying race to earn spots in Sunday's 54th running of 500.
Marcos Ambrose ran third in the first Duel after regaining a lost lap under a late caution, followed by Jeff Burton in fourth with pole-sitter Edwards coming home fifth.
Stewart had led 10 straight laps when Michael Waltrip, returning to the track after pitting for a splash of fuel, shot up the banking and into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 53, simultaneously destroying his No. 40 Toyota and his prospects of racing in his 26th straight Daytona 500.
"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," Waltrip lamented. "I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front, and then I let them down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say -- it's just sad."
Kenseth got a huge push from Jimmie Johnson in the outside lane, as the duo approached the start/finish line to take the white flag in the second Duel. Biffle, who held the lead at that point, moved up the track to block Kenseth, but Kenseth and Johnson dived to the inside and used their momentum to clear Biffle.
"With that push, it would never have gotten done," Kenseth said. "Greg lost his drafting partner. We were able to separate him and the 78 (Smith), and we had such a huge run that Greg was kind of a sitting duck. I was going so fast with Jimmie's push that we were able to make it past."