Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated in Victory Lane on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway — but it wasn’t with the Toyota that dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Southern 500.
After leading 265 laps, Kyle Busch cut a tire in the closing laps and was forced to nurse the No. 18 car to the end. That allowed Matt Kenseth to capitalize on his teammate’s misfortune and take the race.
Kenseth assumed the lead on Lap 355 of 367, then Busch fell through the field and finished sixth.
For Kenseth, it was “a dream come true” to win this race. Busch, who was looking for his second win at the "Track Too Tough to Tame" said on his radio that he had “never been so disgusted in my whole life.”
Kenseth’s victory, his third of the season and 27th of his Cup career, was cathartic for the driver and team — although his crew chief Jason Ratcliff was not in the pit box for Saturday’s race while serving a NASCAR suspension.
Since Kenseth’s victory at Kansas Speedway on April 21, his No. 20 JGR team has been under scrutiny after his winning engine did not pass post-race inspection. Following a hearing last Wednesday, the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel reduced NASCAR’s earlier penalty of sidelining Ratcliff for six weeks to a single points race suspension. With Wally Brown, Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, calling the shots this weekend, the crew pulled together and persevered.
“I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said. “This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career. I feel bad that Jason isn’t here. This is obviously his team and his effort, but Wally did a great job filling in.
“We had a fifth- or sixth-place car — fighting loose 1 but those two last adjustments were just awesome. To be able to duke it out with Kyle there — he’s a great teammate.”
Kenseth acknowledged that he “saved the best for last.” Although he started seventh, Kenseth didn’t really show his strength until he took the lead from Busch on Lap 53 after Busch pitted. Still, while his car appeared equal to his teammate’s, in clean air and with intel from spotter Tony Hirschman relaying Kenseth’s line, Busch held off several earlier attacks.
But Busch, who had won Friday night’s Nationwide Series race and was hoping to sweep the weekend for the third time this season, ran over a piece of debris in the final 30 laps and lost the handling on his car.
“Kyle Busch was the fastest thing here from flag to flag,” said his crew chief Dave Rogers. “Just had a great car . . . thought we were going to capitalize, but when we came in, there was only 12 pounds in the right rear and you can see a hole in the tread.
“Thankfully, Kyle stayed on the wheel and didn’t wreck the car.”
Considering the damage to the tires, it was a valiant effort by Busch, who salvaged a sixth-place finish and gained two positions in the points standings (eighth).
Kenseth could sympathize with his teammate’s frustration. But he doesn’t expect his success to cause consternation within the organization.
“Man, it’s crushing when you lead all day like that and don’t come home with a win, especially if it’s something that you get a flat tire or something,” Kenseth said. “Really disappointing. Kyle and Denny both, they’re great teammates. They’re both capable of winning any racetrack, any week. That helps me a lot. That really makes me a better driver, elevates my game."
“I’m sure Kyle is disappointed. I was disappointed last week. We led all the laps. I messed up the green-white-checkered. I don’t know what I could have done different, but finished eighth (at Talladega). That’s always disappointing.”
With Saturday’s victory, Kenseth climbed to third in the points standings. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 59 points. As he’s been in championship hunts before and won the title in 2003, Kenseth doesn’t believe a crew can peak too early in a season — even if it’s one working together for the first year.
“The goal of a race team and an organization is to never peak, I think it’s to continue to keep getting better,” said Kenseth, who joined the organization this season. “That’s one thing I’ve seen over there pretty much from Day One. They’re not standing still. They’re always trying to build a better car. TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is trying to build a better engine. We’re always trying to do that, working on the future. I think that’s how racing is.
“No, I don’t have any concern. I really feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky’s the limit. This stuff has been incredibly fast. Jason and I have a special bond right away, with the whole team. Gosh, I couldn’t feel much better about our year so far.”
And with Ratcliff returning to action next weekend, 2013 might be Kenseth’s best year ever.
Denny Hamlin might not be fully recovered from his fractured vertebra yet, but his second-place finish at Darlington Raceway proved that he hasn’t lost his competitive nature.
Although Hamlin’s car wasn’t nearly as stout as those of his teammates — winner Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch, who led the most laps — the driver of the No. 11 Toyota manned up on Saturday night.
“We didn’t run as strong as what I hoped throughout the day,” said Hamlin, who started sixth. “We were kind of mired in the fifth to eighth (spots) for most of the day. Track position was so key. You had two to three laps on restarts to get your positions, and after that you were in defense mode.
“For me, we kept grinding away. Pit crew picked us up some stops obviously throughout the night. It was one of those days where we got our car better, pit crew picked us up positions, took us to the most optimum spot we could get to, and that was second.”
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five in the race, but Hamlin vaulted four positions in the points standings to 27th. In order to qualify for the Chase to the Sprint Cup, his easiest route will be battling back into the top 20 and winning races to secure a wild-card spot. Currently, Hamlin sits 61 points out of 20th place.
Although Hamlin acknowledged he was “sore and tired” after the race, he understands it might “take a while” before he’s fully recovered. Yet for ultra-competitive Hamlin, who came back last week in the race at Talladega Superspeedway after a five-week absence and was relieved by Brian Vickers following the first 31 laps, returning to racing is likely his best medicine.
“It feels good to just be competitive again,” Hamlin said. "Watching the races from the sidelines for really five weeks, it’s tough. You know you can change things. You can do things to change your outcome. But you’re not in the race car.
“My back held up good. I’m more sore, shoulders, neck, things like that. I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be. … For us it was good. I definitely didn’t feel any back pain, It was just more stamina that I had issues with.”
4: Drivers led laps in the 2013 Southern 500 — Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and winner Matt Kenseth.
3: Consecutive years Kenseth has scored three wins.
69: Laps led by Kurt Busch — the most he’s led in a race since Dover in the fall of 2011.
Jeff Gordon experienced a respectable race in his 700th consecutive career start. He led 16 laps (the most in three years) and finished third to move back into the Chase Zone (12th in the standings).
“I thought that was very cool,” Gordon said. “Looking back throughout my career, this track has been one of the best for me, a very special place — holds so much history for this sport. 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 than here. Then to go out there and have a strong performance, it felt great. 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. This was much better than that. Top three, that’s fantastic. I mean, we needed this kind of performance, a gutsy performance, for the points as well as to make this one memorable.”