Matt Kenseth holds off Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne to win first Budweiser Duel

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In an exciting three-wide finish, Matt Kenseth found a few extra horsepower when he needed it, passing Kevin Harvick and holding off a hard-charging Kasey Kahne to win Thursday’s first of two Budweiser Twin Duel 150s at Daytona International Speedway.

Kenseth beat Harvick to the finish line by a mere .022 seconds.

But perhaps the bigger stories were the unheralded drivers who qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500, namely Josh Wise, Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman.

Wise finished sixth in the 24-car race, far ahead of luminaries such as Tony Stewart (11th), Greg Biffle (13th) and Danica Patrick (14th).

“It’s a big burden lifted off, for sure,” Wise said. “Sleep has been light this week, but my car was pretty good. We were able to get in that top lane and maintain.”

Whitt finished 12th in a car that was essentially rebuilt from Wednesday’s wreck that left his car on its hood. Whitt will make his first appearance in the Daytona 500 by virtue of Thursday night’s finish.

“My guys pulled together and made it happen,” Whitt said. “My hat’s off to them. To be in the Daytona 500 is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life.”

And Bowman came on strong at the end to finish 15th and make the field for the Great American Race.

“It’s a huge sigh of relief,” Bowman said. “It’s huge for me and my family. We’re in the Daytona 500.”

Kenseth appeared as if he’d finish runner-up when Harvick passed him on the backstretch of the final lap. But Kenseth reached back for some additional power and rallied to take the checkered flag.

Could Kenseth’s achievement be lightning striking again? He won one of the Duels in 2012 and then went on to win the Daytona 500 a few days later, his second triumph in the Great American Race.

“Maybe it makes up for the rest of the week,” Kenseth said. “The rest of week, I haven’t felt too coordinated.”

Harvick side-drafted Kenseth and took the lead, but as much as he snookered Kenseth, Harvick himself was a victim of Kenseth’s snookering.

“I can’t tell you how bad I want to win a race early for these guys (his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing),” Harvick said. “What a great way to start Speedweeks. We’ve had two solid races and just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”

If Kahne would have had maybe another half-lap, he might have been able to overtake both Harvick and Kenseth.

“We drove back up through the middle there and drove to the front,” Kahne said. “Matt (Kenseth) did a good job of being able to hold us off … but it was fun. We had a good time.”

Marcos Ambrose finished fourth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sixth through 10th were Wise, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland and Ryan Newman.

Austin Dillon started on the pole Thursday by virtue of winning the top spot during Sunday’s front row qualifying. But perhaps wanting to leave something in reserve for the Great American Race, Dillon finished 19th.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Kyle Busch, who finished 21st, the last driver on the lead lap.

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Here’s who were picking to win the Indy 500 — who are YOU picking?

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Several members of the NBC Sports motorsports staff have made their predictions on who will win Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Of the six voters, two are going with 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden, while two others are going with Helio Castroneves to win a fourth 500, which would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Here’s our picks. Who are YOU picking?

Leigh Diffey: Helio Castroneves — He drives the place better than anyone else. For me (for what its worth) he deserves a fourth 500 ring for the frustration he went through never getting the IndyCar title!

Townsend Bell: Josef Newgarden

Nate Ryan: Simon Pagenaud — All of his 2018 misfortune on the track has disappeared in May, and it culminates in the biggest victory of his career.

Jerry Bonkowski: Helio Castroneves – There’s no pressure as he pursues his fourth Indy 500 win. All Helio has to do, as late NFL owner Al Davis would say, is “Just win, baby!” (But if Helio falls short, watch for Marco Andretti)

Kyle Lavigne: Josef Newgarden — I think he has everything he needs to get it done this year.

Dan Beaver: Robert Wickens – Has driven like anything except a rookie and his second-place finish at Phoenix proves he’s just as good on an oval as the road courses.

Follow: Jerry Bonkowski