DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Drivers raced only when they felt like it Thursday night. They didn't seem to feel like it much, until the finishes of the 150-mile Duels. And even then, they couldn't beat the front-cruising Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Matt Kenseth won the first one and Denny Hamlin the second. Kenseth held off last-moment lunges from Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne that helped the show but little more. All Hamlin had to do as he cruised to his checkered flag was watch a wreck in his rearview mirror.
Throw in Hamlin's win in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited bonus race, and the JGR cars are 3-0 for Speedweeks going into Sunday's Daytona 500.
Now the idea is simply to "keep doing what we're doing," Hamlin said. "We're on a roll, obviously."
"If you're going to pick a favorite, I would consider them the favorite," said Jeff Gordon, who finished second to Hamlin in the second Duel.
But Gordon quickly pointed out the folly of trying to handicap any restrictor-plate race.
"I don't know if that means anything," he said of the JGR sweep so far. "But I would definitely say they're very quick and very capable of winning this race -- along with 42 other guys."
Well, he meant 41 others, if you count both Kenseth and Hamlin. And you'd better. Neither had a whole lot of trouble staying up front.
Harvick took a last-lap shot at Kenseth, and Kahne went low to make it almost three-wide at the line.
But Harvick had his second-place finish tossed out when his car failed postrace inspection due to an issue over configuration of the track bar.
NASCAR treats the Duels as qualifying sessions rather than actual races, so in having his qualifying round disallowed, Harvick also lost his second-place finish.
But on that last lap, the trouble was, as usual in plate races, Harvick needed help and didn't get it until "just a touch too late," he said.
"I knew I had to go when I had the momentum," Harvick said, meaning he had to wait until those behind him decided to race. "When they were jammed up tightest was when I had to pull out."
But, "the timing of the side draft was off just a little bit," Harvick continued, and then we both just about lost it ... when I went up to chase him, I noticed the 5 [Kahne] come to the bottom."
"I saw him laying back," Kenseth said. "He made the perfect move." As Harvick pulled alongside, "I was just fortunate to get to his right rear early enough to get a big enough run to get me back to the finish line."
The finish indicated that, with taller spoilers this year, there can be scrambling when the motivation is there.
"I think when everybody gets antsy and wants to go, you can group up and go," Harvick said.
But nobody got antsy until the white flag of each race. Mainly there was a lot of riding, single file, just logging laps, as has become common in plate racing.
Still, "we just had a three-wide finish for the win," Harvick said in the media center afterward. "I guess if you guys didn't like that, we'll have to try something different."
Kenseth, who'd detonated a major pileup during the Unlimited Saturday night and then been at the front of another big wreck in practice on Wednesday, said: "Maybe it [his win] makes up a little bit for the rest of the week."
"The rest of the week, I haven't been very coordinated."
Kenseth felt so badly that "today, I was kind of embarrassed to walk in the garage," he said. His fellow drivers "are probably not ... but I feel like they're looking at you cross-eyed when you're walking by."
Maybe now, going into Sunday and NASCAR's showcase race, if drivers look at Kenseth funny as he walks by, they'll view him and Hamlin as the men to beat in the 500.