Matt Kenseth notches Southern 500 victory

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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.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.