Kenseth celebrated, Denny Hamlin sighed and Kyle Busch seethed after Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway
The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were the focal point with Busch grabbing most of the attention until his dominant night finished with run-in with Kasey Kahne - for the third time this season - and deflated right rear.
Once Busch’s car faded, Kenseth took charge, leading the final 13 laps to score his series-best third victory of the season. It came a few days after his team won an appeal, getting most if its penalties reduced or rescinded for an underweight connecting rod discovered after last month’s win at Kansas. Kenseth’s win Saturday also came shortly after his son, Ross, won a late model race at South Boston Speedway.
Trailing Matt Kenseth across the finish line was Hamlin, running his first full race since suffering a fractured vertebrae in a last-lap crash in March at Auto Club Speedway. Jeff Gordon, making his 700th consecutive start, finished third. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was fourth.
Kenseth won without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, serving a one-race suspension - reduced from six points races in that appeal - for the Kansas penalty. Wally Brown served as Kenseth’s crew chief.
“I’ll be back on the shop floor Monday morning doing my regular job,’’ Brown said. “This was, again, a one-race deal just to help out.’’
Kenseth needed help early but his car improved late in the race, putting him in position to win.
“It was just a crazy, grueling, difficult race,’’ Kenseth said.
Yet, it once again ended with a Gibbs car winning. Joe Gibbs Racing has won all five races on non-restrictor-plate tracks more than 1 mile long this season (Las Vegas, Auto Club, Texas, Kansas and Darlington).
It appeared Busch would win until his race unraveled. An aggressive move while racing Kahne for the lead with 34 laps left caused Kahne to crash.
“He just made another mistake,’’ Kahne said of Busch. “That’s his third one when he’s been around me. I don’t understand it.’’
Busch’s troubles continued when a right rear began losing air. His frustration mounted.
“I’ve never been so disgusted in my entire life,’’ he said on the radio to his team. “This is pathetic.’’
Busch finished sixth after leading 265 of the race’s 367 laps. He walked out of the garage without speaking to the media.
While Busch’s race soured, Hamlin’s soared, but it wasn’t easy. He was worn out after his first full race in more than a month.
“I am extremely proud of you,’’ crew chief Darian Grubb radioed Hamlin after the race.
“That was a grind,’’ Hamlin responded.
That’s what it is going to take if Hamlin hopes to have any chance of making the Chase. He moved four spots to 27th in the standings and is 61 points out of 20th - the lowest a driver can be and remain eligible for a Wild Card spot.
Gordon tied his season-high with this third-place effort.
“I wanted the 700th (career start) to be a memorable one,’’ he said. “I’m glad it wasn’t like last year’s memory where we blew two left rear tires. This as much better than that. We needed this kind of performance.’’
Johnson was poised to challenge the Gibbs cars for the victory until he lost five spots on the final pit stop after a caution on lap 329 and restarted eighth.
Kevin Harvick finished fifth, earning his second top-five finish in the last three races. Busch was sixth with Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman completing the top 10. Pole-sitter Kurt Busch, who led 69 laps early, finished 14th. David Ragan, who won last weekend’s race at Talladega, placed 39th.
Once again it was Kenseth leading them to the finish, leading to the question of if this team is peaking too soon.
“I’m not a big believer in that,’’ Kenseth said. “I think the goal of a race team and an organization is to never peak, I think it’s to continue to keep getting better. That’s one thing I’ve seen over there pretty much from day one. They’re not standing still.’’
They’re driving away from their competition.