Unsinkable Matt Kenseth capped a banner week for unsinkable Joe Gibbs Racing with a victory in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway with a substitute crew chief on his pit box—the unsinkable Wally Brown.
The past four days could hardly have been better for JGR, with Wednesday bringing a substantial reduction in penalties on appeal for an engine infraction Apr, 21 at Kansas. On Friday, Gibbs cars ran 1-2-3 in the Nationwide Series race at Darlington, and the organization followed that Saturday with a 1-2 finish from Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in the 11th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season.
Kenseth took the lead from JGR teammate Kyle Busch on Lap 355 of 367 and pulled away to win by 3.155 seconds over Hamlin, as Busch faded to sixth. Hamlin also had much to celebrate in his first full race back from a compression fracture to his first lumbar vertebra, sustained during a last-lap crash at Fontana, Calif., in late March.
It was a race of significant numbers. Jeff Gordon finished third in his 700th Cup start, all consecutive. Jimmie Johnson ran fourth and extended his series lead to a massive 44 points over seventh-place finisher Carl Edwards. In a race that saw just four drivers pace the field, Kyle Busch led 265 laps but faded to sixth at the finish, thanks to a cut tire on the final 30-lap green-flag run.
Journeyman Brown won his first race as a Cup crew chief, after serving with four different drivers before his one-week shot on the pit box with Kenseth, who will get regular crew chief Jason Ratcliff back next week at Charlotte after Ratcliff’s six-race suspension for an underweight connecting rod was reduced to one event on appeal.
But the day belonged to Kenseth, whose resilience under trying circumstances was emblematic of the organization he joined this season.
“Honestly, I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” said Kenseth, who notched his first victory at Darlington, his third of the season and the 27th of his career. “This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career. I really 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, (and) those last two adjustments (on pit road) were just awesome.”
For Hamlin, second place was the best he could have hoped for, given the strength of Kenseth’s car in the closing laps.
“For me, we kept grinding away,” Hamlin said, clearly tired from the effort of his first race back at one of NASCAR racing’s most demanding tracks. “Pit crew picked us up some spots, 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.”
From a physical standpoint, Hamlin admitted the race took its toll.
“Really, it’s just like starting your season over,” he said. “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 of weeks really to rest until the next long event (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte), and we’ll be good to go then.”
A caution for Regan Smith’s spin off Turn 2 on Lap 302 of 367—only the second yellow of the race—interrupted a cycle of green-flag pit stops. After Juan Pablo Montoya took a free pass as the highest scored lap car, and Harvick availed himself of a wave-around, there were 11 cars on the lead lap for a restart on Lap 309.
By then, Kyle Busch had led 218 laps and had dominated the race ever since he wrested the lead from his brother, polesitter Kurt Busch on Lap 74. But the pit stops on Lap 303 put the lead-lap cars on the edge of their fuel windows.
They need not have worried. On Lap 311, Casey Mears tangled with Kurt Busch and reigning series champion Brad Keselowski off Turn 4 to cause the third caution. All but the top-four cars came to pit road for fuel under the yellow, leaving Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Gordon out front on slightly older tires.
Johnson was first off pit road with new tires and quickly moved to third. Busch fended off a challenge from Kahne right after the restart and held a lead of .850 seconds when an accident involving David Reutimann and Josh Wise brought out the fourth caution and gave the lead-lappers a chance to pit for tires.
Kahne briefly took the lead after a restart on Lap 333, but one lap later, Kahne’s Chevy slapped the wall near the apex of Turns 1 and 2 and the race went yellow for the fifth time.
The result was the same. Busch pulled away after the restart and opened a comfortable advantage, this time over Kenseth, only to have Kenseth run him down and pass him on Lap 355.