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NASCAR: Matt Kenseth survives wild race to win Sprint Unlimited

Matt Kenseth kicks off the NASCAR season with a win in the wild Sprint Unlimited race at Daytona

The love taps on Valentine’s Day piled up, a collection of shiny and battered sheet metal in the evening’s chill at Daytona International Speedway.

By the time Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Unlimited Saturday night, more than half the field of the original 25 had dropped out of the lead lap in the contentious battle of bumper cars.

It had been a short 13 weeks from the time Kevin Harvick celebrated his Sprint Cup title, and it’s obvious that everybody was ready to mix it up. The carnage included four cautions, and the most jarring hit of the night:

Greg Biffle slamming into one of the safe barriers inside the track, bouncing off in a blaze, and then getting clipped again by Kurt Busch. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Welcome back, boys and girl.

“This thing is wild and that’s what it’s going to be like at the end of the Daytona 500,” said Jeff Gordon, who finished seventh in the scrum.

The exhibition event kicked off the 2015 NASCAR season, with 25 drivers competing in a 75-lap sprint. A perfect setup for the Daytona 500.

Kenseth, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, was able to hold off Martin Truex Jr. in the last laps. But Truex Jr. never made a serious run, especially with Carl Edwards — Kenseth’s teammate — in no mood to give him an aerodynamic push.

Kenseth starts the season with a nice jump-start after a winless 2014.

“There’s nothing like winning. That’s why we come out and do this every week,” Kenseth said.

The chippy nature of things escalated on the cool-down lap when Harvick and Joey Logano got out of their cars and got into an angry exchange. Logano’s Ford bumped Kenseth’s Chevy hard from behind in the closing laps.

“New year, same stuff,” Logano said. “He doesn’t understand I was trying to help.”

“I told him I didn’t appreciate it,” Harvick said. “You can’t push all the way into the corner up into the fence. ... Really dumb driving at the end.”

Everyone will regroup and be back on Sunday for Daytona 500 qualifying. How slow it will go remains unanswered.

Group qualifying will make its debut in the 57-year history of the Daytona 500. While it looks like a welcome change from the monotonous single-car runs that determined the two front-row positions for the Great American Race, the concept tasted a bit like New Coke during its rollout in Talladega last season.

“Nobody was on the same page,” Kasey Kahne said.

“It wasn't a whole lot of fun,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

“I have no idea how things will play out,” Kenseth said Saturday.

Some drivers bailed after putting in a fast lap. Others tried to make a run but got left behind when other drivers pulled out and took away the draft. Some drivers hung back, as if they were Driving Miss Daisy instead of trying to qualify at a super-speedway.

The rules are engagement are as such: Qualifying will consist of three rounds, with the first round divided into two groups based on a random drawing. Sunday’s qualifying will also determine the starting lineups for the Budweiser Duel twin-qualifying races set for Thursday night.

Let’s see how it plays out Sunday.

But it’s going to be hard to replicate Saturday night’s carnage and mayhem.

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