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Originally published February 24, 2013 at 11:32 AM | Page modified February 25, 2013 at 6:40 AM

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Early wreck in Daytona 500 takes out favorites

With one massive wreck, the favorite was gone from the Daytona 500. So was the sentimental favorite.

AP Sports Writer

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —

With one massive wreck, the favorite was gone from the Daytona 500. So was the sentimental favorite.

An early crash in the Daytona 500 on Sunday knocked out several top contenders, including 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick and three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, shaking up NASCAR's opener.

Winner of two races at Speedweeks, Harvick was sent to the garage.

So was Stewart. He must now wait another season to try for his first Daytona 500 win after he failed in his 15th try at winning "The Great American Race." In 17 seasons spanning NASCAR and IndyCar, Stewart has been able to cross most everything off his to-do list. Just not the Daytona 500.

"If I didn't tell you I was heartbroken and disappointed, I'd be lying to you," Stewart said.

While taking the checkered was out of the picture, Stewart ditched the safety goggles and grabbed some tools in the garage to repair his No. 14.

Stewart eventually returned to the track - only 82 laps back. Safe to say, he was a bit of a long shot.

The nine-car wreck started when Kasey Kahne let off the gas to slow as they neared the first turn at Daytona International Speedway. Kyle Busch tried to do the same, but couldn't avoid contact.

Busch sent Kahne spinning across the track. Juan Pablo Montoya, 2010 race winner Jamie McMurray and defending series champion Brad Keselowski also were involved. So were Kurt Busch and Casey Mears.

"It's crazy. I can't believe it," Kahne said. "I mean, I wanted to race."

The accident came a day after a horrific wreck in a second-tier NASCAR series race hurled chunks of debris, including a heavy tire, into the stands and injured nearly 30 people.

It also ended Harvick's attempt to become the first in NASCAR history to win the exhibition Sprint Unlimited, a twin qualifying race and the Daytona 500 in the same Speedweeks.

"I don't know who was behind me, but it was just one of those deals," Harvick said.

Harvick stripped his firesuit down to his waist and rode off in a golf cart, a more solemn ride than his two trips to Victory Lane this week. Harvick had dominated in Speedweeks as the prelude to his final season driving a Richard Childress Chevrolet. He won last weekend's Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel races, each time plopping his son Keelan into the cockpit for a quick rub of good luck.

This time, his battered No. 29 couldn't be saved. Crew members pounded away at sheet metal trying to salvage a return for Stewart.

The parade of wreckers entering the garage hauled the dented or totaled remains of some of the sport's heaviest hitters. Montoya is a former Indianapolis 500 winner. Busch won the 2004 Cup championship. None of them had a chance to pad his resume.

"You could see it coming. They were all checking up," Montoya said. "And I thought, `Somebody isn't going to check up and screw up.' And, then, they did."

Stewart won the crash-marred Nationwide Series on Saturday for his 19th victory at Daytona in all other levels of NASCAR except for Cup. He has more wins at one of NASCAR's most famous tracks except for Dale Earnhardt (34). Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in his 20th try.

Stewart will at least stretch it out to 16.

The race might not be a total loss for Stewart. His Stewart-Haas Racing team fields the car for pole winner Danica Patrick. Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the famed Daytona 500 on Sunday. She led two laps - Nos. 90 and 91. On the starting grid, Stewart gave her a big hug and whispered into her ear before she slid into the cockpit.

Told the accident spoiled the start of his season, Stewart wasn't buying it.

"To hell with the season," he said. "I wanted to win the Daytona 500.

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Follow Dan Gelston online: https://twitter.com/APGelston and http://racing.ap.org

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