DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth would never have believed he would fulfill a lifelong dream Saturday night by winning the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. But that is exactly what he did.
“Kyle (Busch) had the best car, but then something happened to him and here we are in victory lane at Darlington,” said Kenseth after his third win of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
“Holy cow — I won the Southern 500,” added Kenseth. “This is a dream come true. We were good at the start but then we were about a fifth- or sixth-place car until right there at the end.
“The last couple of adjustments really helped the car to where we could race Kyle. I hate Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) is not here tonight. This is his team. He deserves all the credit for how well we are running this year.”
Ratcliff was serving a one-race suspension after a three-member panel voted unanimously Wednesday to cut Ratcliff’s suspension from six races to one. The team had been penalized after NASCAR discovered one of the connecting rods on the engine used by Kenseth to win Kansas was not within specifications.
Car owner Joe Gibbs appealed the penalty with Kenseth’s 50-point penalty being reduced to 12 points and Ratcliff’s suspension reduced by five races.
Wally Brown was the acting crew chief Saturday night.
Busch dominated the first 350 laps of the race before running into major handling problems in the final 17 laps as he dropped all the way to sixth. Busch led four times for 265 laps.
Busch was also the center of controversy after he and Kasey Kahne tangled as they dueled for the lead with 35 laps remaining.
No one had really challenged Busch for the lead from Lap 74 to this point in the event. But Kahne was able to stay alongside Busch on the restart following the fourth caution flag of the evening.
Kahne was able to grab the lead as they raced into the third turn. Busch tried the crossover move as the duo exited turn four. But as they hit turn one, Busch got loose underneath Kahne. Suddenly, Kahne was spinning and bouncing off the wall to end his victory aspirations.
Kahne, who ended up 17th, was quite upset with Busch.
“We were racing hard,” said Kahne. “I got by him in turn three and he was trying to get back by me. Next thing I knew I was spinning. Whether he hit me or took the air off me I don’t know. I don’t know what he was thinking there.
“Kyle and I have two or three of these deals while racing for the lead.”
Busch regained the top spot when Kahne brought out the yellow flag. Busch quickly pulled away from Kenseth on the restart on lap 338 of the 367-lap event.
Busch seemed to have the race won when he suddenly began slowing in turns three and four allowing Kenseth to take the lead on lap 354.
Busch continued to struggle with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick also passing him in the final 10 laps.
Hamlin was delighted with his runner-up finish in his first full race back from a compression fracture in his back suffered in a crash six weeks ago.
“I’m tired, I’m worn out,” Hamlin said. “This is such a challenging, grueling race. Six hundred miles (at Charlotte in two weeks) won’t be as bad as this race This is just such a grueling race.”
Following Busch in the top 10 were seventh-ranked Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Ryan Newman.
With only one caution flag in the first 302 laps, Kenseth averaged a record 141.383 miles per hour.
The win moved Kenseth into third place in the standings, 59 points back of Johnson.
NOTES: Paul Menard says he’s close to a contract extension with Richard Childress Racing and hopes to have an announcement to that effect shortly. “I haven’t signed anything. Hopefully, we do that soon,” Menard told FoxSports.com. Menard’s crew chief, Richard “Slugger” Labbe, already has signed an extension with RCR, and he and Menard have been an inseparable and successful pair for the past four seasons, the past three with Childress. Since coming to RCR with Labbe in 2011, Menard has enjoyed his three most productive seasons. Though the first 10 races this year he’s ninth in the standings and happy to be with the Childress organization. … Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington marked Jeff Gordon’s 700th start in the Sprint Cup Series, all consecutive. That’s the longest consecutive streak in any of the major sports, but Gordon isn’t ready to contemplate breaking Ricky Rudd’s Cup mark of 788 — not yet. Assuming a 36-event schedule and no break in action for Gordon, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet would break Rudd’s record in the 28th race of 2015.