DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth is quickly showing how well he fits in at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth passed JGR teammate Kyle Busch 13 laps from the end to win the Southern 500 on Saturday night, his third victory in his debut season after a successful stint with Roush Fenway Racing.
JGR president J.D. Gibbs knew he was getting a champion in Kenseth. Still, even he’s been surprised with how fast the new driver has come up to speed alongside teammates Denny Hamlin and Busch.
“He’s a good leader,” J.D. Gibbs said. “Denny and Kyle really like having him there and hearing what he has to say. And on the track, he’s got a gift.”
He proved that again at Darlington, where Kenseth patiently sat behind Busch much of the race before the right adjustments to the car clicked. It didn’t hurt that Busch, who led 265 of 367 laps, cut a right rear tire down the stretch that cost him.
Once Kenseth cleared his teammate, he had clear sailing toward his 27th career Sprint Cup victory.
“I’ve got the good job and I’ve got the easy job,” Kenseth said. “When they give me cars this fast, it’s a lot of fun.”
Hamlin completed his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back on March 24 and finished right behind Kenseth. Jeff Gordon finished third in his 700th straight career start. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
Kenseth’s victory came without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was suspended for the No. 20 Toyota having an illegal part in a win at Kansas.
Carl Edwards finished seventh, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10.
“This is a dream come true,” Kenseth shouted on his radio. “Thank you guys very much.”
Hamlin might’ve thought the same thing after his second-place finish. The driver missed four races because of the injury and ran just 23 laps at Talladega last weekend handing the car off to replacement driver Brian Vickers.
Hamlin’s finish was just what the team needed as it tries to move up from 31st place when the week began into 20th, where it’d be eligible for a wild card entry into NASCAR’s championship chase.
As Hamlin neared the end of the grueling 500 miles, crew chief Darian Grubb radioed his appreciation of the effort Hamlin put forth in his first full race back.
“I am extremely proud of you there, buddy. Just an awesome job hanging with it all day,” crew chief Darian Grubb radioed as they closed in on the finish.
“Thank you so much. I appreciate it,” Hamlin replied.
Hamlin wasn’t sore, just worn out after leaving the car. “This is a tough, grueling race,” he said. “Nothing to hang our heads about coming up second for second year in a row.”
Kenseth had won three times here in the Nationwide Series, but had never come closer than third in Sprint Cup. “I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this,” said Kenseth, who counts the 2003 series championship and two Daytona 500s among his achievements.
No one matched Busch for most of the race. He had powered to victory in the Nationwide event here Friday night— leading 107 of 147 laps — and was running strong again after taking the lead from older brother and pole-sitter Kurt Busch 74 laps in.
Kyle Busch stayed on top through several stretches of green-flag racing and through the first four restarts. But his machine couldn’t keep up after Kenseth went by.
Crew chief Dave Rogers said Busch had a cut right rear tire and only 12 pounds of pressure left when he went into the garage. It’s the 11th time Busch has led at least 200 laps in a Sprint Cup race, yet he’s only won four of those.
Busch left the track without comment. Hamlin, though, was pretty certain about his teammate’s mindset. “Yeah, he definitely won’t be happy, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said. “But it’s tough when you have a car that was as dominant as his, then the last run, whatever happens happens.”
Kenseth’s win came with Wally Brown calling the shots as crew chief. Ratcliff is expected back for the next race after JGR had penalties imposed by NASCAR reduced on appeal.
The best chance to defeat Busch appeared to come from Kasey Kahne, who pressured his JGR rival on the restart after the fourth caution period. Kahne looked like he had cleared Busch but the car got loose and the back end slammed the wall.
Kahne was not happy with Busch’s maneuver.
“Three times this year me and Kyle had contact and I had a chance, capable-winning cars, it’s disappointing on the points side and not winning some of these races,” Kahne said. “Whether he hit me or just blew the air off, whatever it was, he blew his entry. I’m not sure what he was thinking on that.”
Kurt Busch had hoped to go from an upside-down finish when his car went airborne late and crash-landed on Ryan Newman at Talladega last week to his first Sprint Cup victory in two years at Darlington. He set a qualifying record to win the pole Friday and led 69 of the first 73 laps before getting passed by brother Kyle.
Kurt Busch struggled to stay close during the unexpected long stretches of green-flag racing. He was sent a lap down by Kyle on lap 279 and was part of a three-car dustup about 20 laps later that also involved defending series champion Brad Keselowski and Casey Mears.
There would be no joyous moment for Kurt Busch here on the 10-year anniversary of his side-by-side final lap dual with Ricky Craven as he finished 14th. Busch ended up in second, .002 seconds behind in Sprint Cup’s closest finish since it went to electronic timing in 1993.
The late accident at Talladega opened the door for the duo from Front Row Racing, David Ragan and David Gilliland to finish 1-2 in last week’s race. The pair couldn’t capitalize on that success at Darlington. Gilliland was 29th and Ragan 39th.
Danica Patrick improved on her placing in her second Sprint Cup race at Darlington, finishing 28th three spots better than in 2012.