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Kenseth Wins 1st Daytona 500 Qualifying Race

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Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — After two wrecks during Speedweeks, Matt Kenseth finally made it unscathed to the finish line.

Kenseth nipped Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne at the finish line Thursday night to win the first of two Daytona 500 qualifying races.

“It makes up a little bit for the rest of the week — the rest of the week I haven’t been very coordinated,” Kenseth said. “I was kind of embarrassed walking in the garage. You feel like people are kind of looking at you cross-eyed.”

Kenseth led two times for 31 of the 60 laps, but Harvick pulled out on the final lap to make his bid for the victory. Then Kahne pulled out of line to make it three-wide.

But Kenseth stayed on the gas of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the top of the track and was the first car across the finish line in what fans hope was a preview of Sunday’s season-opening race.

“We just had a three-wide finish for the win,” Harvick said. “I guess if you guys don’t like that, we’ll have to try something different.”

Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman, both rookies, raced their way into the 43-driver field via the available transfer spots.

“It’s a huge sigh of relief,” said Bowman, who drove a Toyota for BK Racing. “It’s huge for me and my family. Shoot, we’re in the Daytona 500. It’s something I watched every year as a kid.”

Whitt battled back in a car that was damaged in Wednesday’s practice and had to be rebuilt after teammate Parker Kligerman also wrecked. Kligerman needed a backup car, and Swan Racing only had one, so the team was forced to rebuild Whitt’s Toyota.

Kligerman was in the same 150-mile qualifying race as Whitt, but finished 18th and didn’t transfer into the Daytona 500. He had to wait for the second Budweiser 150 Mile to see if he made the field.

It was a wild turn of events for Kligerman, who was turned upside down for the first time in his career in Wednesday’s wreck, then landed a sponsor for the Daytona 500 in Lending Tree on Thursday morning, then had to sweat out his spot in the “Great American Race.”

Kligerman’s backup car wasn’t as good as his primary, and he struggled on the final lap, when he dropped from ninth to 18th.

“I actually had my wheel all set wrong, so I was fighting with a wheel in the wrong position,” he said. “It felt like we were going to have a solid finish there. Then (Greg) Biffle started hitting me in the bumper pretty hard. I looked down and my gauges were flashing. I suddenly started to lose power, lose power, lose power until it was cut off. I pulled down because I didn’t want to get wrecked, obviously, because we can make it in on points.

“I tried to see if we could make something happen on the bottom. But we missed it by two or three spots. Hopefully, we get in on points.”

Josh Wise, driving for underfunded Phil Parsons Racing, finished sixth in the first race to make the Daytona 500.

“It’s a big burden lifted off, for sure. Sleep has been light this week,” Wise said.

Michael McDowell, who has three previous starts in the Daytona 500, was eliminated from the field in the first qualifying race. So was Dave Blaney, who withdrew because he didn’t have a backup car after wrecking in Wednesday’s practice.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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