Matt Kenseth, first at the finish line again, making the Southern 500 his third win of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Not bad for a man with just a substitute crew chief, and all this coming after a very tumultuous two weeks -- Matt Kenseth Saturday night put a period on his troubles with a late charge to win the Southern 500.
It came at the cruel expense of teammate Kyle Busch, who dominated the 500-miler at legendary Darlington Raceway until the final moments, when a cut rear tire forced him to slow. He finished sixth.
But -- and team owner Joe Gibbs has to be thrilled with the night as a whole -- third teammate Denny Hamlin pulled off an ironman second-place finish. Hamlin was making his first full-time start since his March 24th crash at California, and he was full-speed all night. But it clearly left him drained.
"Holy cow! Thank you guys," a jubilant Kenseth told his crew after the nearly four-hour event. It's Kenseth's third win of the year, his first season in Joe Gibbs' Toyotas. And considering the judicial trials he and his team had to go through Wednesday, getting most of the originally draconian penalties overturned, this victory was certainly sweet.
Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's full-time crew chief, was serving a one-race suspension for a controversial engine violation at Kansas three weeks. And shop foreman Wally Brown was on the pit box making the calls for Kenseth, with some help from Ratcliff via computer back at the shop.
"They're all sweet, but this is probably the biggest of my career," Kenseth said emotionally.
"We had maybe a fifth or sixth place car all night till the end."
Matt Kenseth is getting frequent visitor points in victory lane this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I'm tired, just worn out," Hamlin said. "Second here two years in a row now....
"The 600 at Charlotte really isn't as grueling as this one. You just have to stay on top of everything here every lap."
Most of the night there was little action on the track, as dominant as Busch was.
However a late yellow set up a duel between Kasey Kahne and Busch, and they swapped the lead several times. The last time, however, just after Kahne retook the lead, going into the corner, the two came very, very close, and Kahne slapped the wall.
That ended Kahne's night, but Busch continued.
Kahne, who had crashed hard with Busch just Sunday at Talladega, wasn't sure just what to think:
"We were just racing hard. I cleared him into three. I knew he wouldn't be able to turn when we got to the corner.
"Three times this year me and Kyle have had contact, when I had a potentially winning car...
"That just close racing. Whether he hit me or just blew the wind off, I don't know."
Kyle Busch left the track quickly without comment. Dave Roger, his crew chief, explained: "We had a cut right-rear.
"Kyle was the fastest thing here. Just a great car. But after the race we had only 12 pounds in the right-rear, and you can see a hole in the tread.
"Thankfully Kyle stayed on the wheel (finishing sixth) and didn't wreck the car.
The latest Kahne incident, Rogers said, had Busch "pretty torn up. They're racing hard, and Kahne tore up another car. All of us have a ton of respect for that (Kahne's) program. Kyle thinks the world of Kasey Kahne, and I think Kenny Francis (Kahne's crew chief) is a great guy. Kyle still has a ton of friends over there (where Busch once worked). He certainly doesn't want to create more work for those guys.
"Kyle was just really somber and disappointed that it happened. Unfortunately it's part of the sport. They were putting on a heck of a race. Kasey made a great move to pass us, and Kyle was just trying to pass him back. "
Jeff Gordon, Kahne's teammate, rallied to third as Busch faded. Jimmie Johnson had been in the thick of the fight down the stretch, but a slow pit stop during the final round took him out of the game.
"I wanted the 700th start to be memorable, and we needed this," Gordon said, after his 700th consecutive career start, an amazing feat stretching back over 20 years now.
Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500: no rain, nice crowd, but little action, till near the finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)