Matt Kenseth took the lead from Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go, and pulled away for his first Southern 500 win on Saturday night, in the fastest 500 mile NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Darlington Raceway history.
Busch led the most laps, but faded to finish sixth. His older brother Kurt, set a track record on Friday to win the pole. He led for most of the first 80 laps but ended up in 14th place.
Kenseth won despite racing without crew chief Jason Ratcliff who was suspended for one race because the number 20 Toyota had an illegal part in a victory at Kansas. Wally Brown filled in as Kenseth's crew chief at the Southern 500.
It was Kenseth's third win this season, most of any Sprint Cup driver, and the 27th victory of his career. He earned a first place check of $309,666.
Denny Hamlin finished second in his first full race since suffering a lower back injury. Jeff Gordon was third in his 700th career start. It was Gordon's 300th top five finish. Only three other drivers, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty have reached that milestone. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was fourth, followed by Kevin Harvick.
Danica Patrick struggled to finish 28th after starting 40th in a back-up car after a wreck in practice on Friday. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ended up in 9th place.
The average race speed of 141.386 mph beat the previous Darlington Raceway record set by Kyle Busch in 2008. There were only nine lead changes among four drivers and five cautions at the 2013 Southern 500.
Sports Director Rich Chrampanis gives his take from The Track Too Tough to Tame
It really looked like it was going to be an instant replay of Kyle Busch's Friday night dominance in the Nationwide race. If anyone were to catch the #18, I thought it would have been Jimmie Johnson. There's no question that Busch was the class of the field, but one little mishap can be the difference between a dominating win and a major disappointment in 6th place. There's no question that the track is a totally different animal over the course of 500 miles. What works at 7pm will not work at 10:45pm when the race is on the line. Denny Hamlin's second place finish is impressive to say the least. It may seem like a long shot, but Hamlin has to feel that he can get to victory lane a couple of times over the next 15 races and wedge his way into the playoffs as wildcard despite missing five races.
You hear a lot of talk about "Old Darlington". Here's what that means in a nutshell. It used to be that you felt like Superman in the car for the first 10-15 laps of a run and you could zip around the track, but the price for that was the car losing its handle on worn out tires. The masters of this track (Johnson and Gordon for example) were able to manage a run and know when to use their tire wear at the right time. That is slowly coming back, but the Gen 6 car is offering a lot of grip which is why you didn't see to many caution flags or big wrecks.
I want to share my story that I used in my standup in the recap of the race. In 2000, I was determined to get "the big story" which was the hottest rookie in the sport, Dale Earnhardt, Junior. I thought that the late Jim Hunter could pull the strings and allow me to be embedded with the team for three days and turn around a great feature for the following race in September. Mr. Hunter steered me to Matt Kenseth and I saw what was to come of the future Cup champion. I remember he missed pit road in his very first race and he nearly did it again in 2013.
Kenseth had a big week for sure. He got a ton of points back with Joe Gibbs successful appeal of the Kansas win. He got to victory lane with a one race substitute crew chief (Wally Brown), and he has another major notch on his resume to go along with his Cup Championship and Daytona 500 titles.
2013 Sprint Cup Driver Championship Points Standings: after Darlington, race 11 of 36
1) #48-Jimmie Johnson [2 wins], 423
2) #99-Carl Edwards [1 win], 379, -43
3) #20-Matt Kenseth [3 wins], 364, -59
4) #88-Dale Earnhardt Jr., 359, -64
5) #15-Clint Bowyer, 349, -74
6) #5-Kasey Kahne [1 win], 326, -97
7) #2-Brad Keselowski, 326, -97
8) #18-Kyle Busch [2 wins], 325, -98
9) #43-Aric Almirola, 317, -106
10) #29-Kevin Harvick [1 win], 315, -108
11) #27-Paul Menard, 315, -108
12) #24-Jeff Gordon, 311, -112
2012 Chase drivers out of top 12
#16-Greg Biffle, 13th
#56-Martin Truex Jr., 14th
#14-Tony Stewart, 21st
#11-Denny Hamlin, 27th [missed 4 races with injury]