Kenseth wins Southern 500 at Darlington
What a week it’s been for Matt Kenseth.
After starting the week staring down the barrel of one of the harshest penalties ever handed out by NASCAR, Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team found out the best way to get back on track toward a championship – by racing to victory in Saturday night’s Southern 500 Sprint Cup series race at Darlington Raceway.
Kenseth passed teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps left to score his third win of the season and his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Darlington whole teammate Denny Hamlin came home second in a triumphant return form a back injury that sidelined him for five races.
Jeff Gordon - making his 700th-consecutive start dating back to November of 1992 – finished third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
For Kenseth, it was career victory number 27 and his best Darlington finish since coming home third at this race in 2006.
“I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500. This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career,” said Kenseth. “Just to win the Southern 500 -- obviously it’s a little bit different since they moved it from Labor Day. To me it still has the same meaning. There’s a lot of tradition here. To be able to win a race at a track like this, especially the Southern 500, man, it’s big. In my mind, it’s one of the biggest races we have of the year really. It's just a special place to win at.”
As if to make the week complete, Kenseth’s 20-year old son Ross also went to victory lane on Saturday night – winning the PASS South race at South Boston Speedway for his first win of the year.
With his victory in the Southern 500, Kenseth now lead the series with three wins and is back on top of his game, now third in points behind Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
It was barely three weeks ago that NASCAR threw the book at Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team after a connecting rod in Kenseth’s race-winning engine from Kansas Speedway was found to be too light in post-race inspection.
NASCAR did everything but take the trophy, penalizing the Kenseth and the team 50 points each, and crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the owner’s license suspended six races.
Gibbs appealed the penalty, and this past Wednesday the NASCAR Appeals Panel reduced the points penalty to 12 points and Ratcliffs suspension to just one race while eliminating the owners suspension entirely.
Getting the points penalty reduced was a shot in the arm for Kenseth, propelling him from 11th to fourth in the standings and back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
Ratcliff sat out Saturday night’s race as part of his suspension, leaving crew chief duties to Wally Brown, who scored his first career victory in 40 races as crew chief.
Hamlin’s second-place effort capped a remarkable comeback after missing four races following a back injury suffered in a crash at Auto Club Speedway on March 24. Hamlin drove the first 23 laps of last week’s race at Talladega before yielding to Brian Vickers.
“I’m sore and I’m tired, but you know it just takes a while,” said Hamlin. “Really it’s like starting your season over with. To start it back over at Darlington for 500 miles – there’s some muscles that have gotten weak. I’ve gotten pretty sore and tired --mentally tired as well. We’ll have a couple weeks really to rest until the next long event and we’ll be good to go then.”
Kenseth and Hamlin’s good fortune came at the expense of their teammate Kyle Busch, who led a race high 265 laps only to fade in the final 10 laps to finish a disappointing sixth, marking the 7th time Busch has led 200 or more laps and not won the race.
Coming off a dominating performance in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, Busch looked to have the race well in hand as he led more than 150 of the final 167 laps.
But after seeing only one caution flag in the first 300 laps, four more cautions reared up over the final 67 laps that changed the course of the race.
Following the fourth caution on lap 329, Busch restarted on the outside with Kasey Kahne to his inside for the restart with 36 to go.
The two ran door to door down the backstretch until Busch pulled a crossover move coming out of turn four to lead Kahne by a foot at the line, but Kahne came back and tried a slidejob of his own – pulling around Bush on the high side in turn one.
Before Kahne could clear the no. 18 Toyota, Busch appeared to slide up the racetrack, making just enough contact with Kahne’s Chevrolet to put Kahne in the wall and bring out the caution.
Busch’s car didn’t appear damaged, but once under green it was clear something wasn’t right as Busch began to fade into the clutches of Kenseth, who slowly reeled him in over the next 18 laps before making the pass for the lead on lap 355.
Busch would eventually fall all the way to sixth in the final running order and left the track without comment. It was later revealed Busch had cut down a right rear tire.
Jeff Gordon’s third-place effort in his 700th-career start also marked his 300th-career top-five finish and his 18th top-five at Darlington - a track where he is also a seven-time winner – and moved up two spots to 12th in the standings.
“I was excited that Darlington was going to be our 700th start and our team was ready to go out there and do battle and that’s what it takes at this tough race track,” said Gordon. “I wanted the 700th to be a memorable one, and I'm glad it wasn't like last year's memory where we blew two left rear tires back-to-back.
“To have the seven wins here that I have, I couldn't think of a better place to come to and get the 700th start here.”
Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Ryan Newman round out the top ten finishers.
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