Matt Kenseth continued his resurgence with Joe Gibbs Racing tonight as he passed Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go and pulled away to claim the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
In addition to Kenseth’s win, Denny Hamlin ensured a 1-2 finish for JGR with a stellar runner-up performance in his first full race since injuring his back earlier this season in a crash at Auto Club Speedway.
Meanwhile, Busch was forced to settle for a sixth-place result as his right rear tire was going down in the final laps. Busch appeared to be in the catbird’s seat for a Darlington weekend sweep; with about 35 laps to go, he had managed to survive a fierce battle with Kasey Kahne for the lead after Kahne went into the wall while trying to overtaking him.
But Kenseth managed to track down his teammate Busch and after a brief fight, he took the point for good and went on to score his first career victory at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”
“I’ve always dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said to Fox Sports in Victory Lane. “This, to me, feels bigger than probably any win in my career.”
The victory was also the first for Kenseth and the No. 20 team since they incurred a series of penalties that stemmed from Kenseth’s race-winning motor at Kansas Speedway failing an inspection last month. The original set of penalties from NASCAR were substantially reduced this week, but with regular crew chief Jason Ratcliff still off the pit box tonight (his six-race suspension was cut to one), Kenseth relied on the help of interim chief Wally Brown.
“I really feel bad that Jason’s not here — this is obviously his team and his effort — but Wally did a great job filling in,” Kenseth said.
As for Hamlin, he was spotted in his car after the race with a clear-cut look of exhaustion. But he was still very much pleased with the final outcome.
“I’m tired, just worn out,” he said to Fox. “It’s a tough, grueling race so there’s nothing to hang our heads about…The guys on pit road were flawless. They’re the best in the business, that’s all I can say. They kept picking us up spots, I kept doing my part on the track. We just needed a 600-mile race; we’ll get that in a few weeks [at Charlotte].”
“Charlotte, believe it or not, the 600-miler is not as grueling as [Darlington]. You have to stay so mentally tough for so long on top of the physical stuff you’ve got going on. It’s tough to overcome. Luckily, it was a good day for us.”
Jeff Gordon finished third to claim his 300th career Top 5 finish in his 700th career Sprint Cup start. Jimmie Johnson finished fourth, and Kevin Harvick completed the Top 5 finishers.