Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated in Victory Lane on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway — but it wasn’t with the car that dominated the Southern 500.
After leading 265 laps, Kyle Busch cut a tire in the closing laps and was forced to nurse the No. 18 car to the end. That allowed Matt Kenseth to capitalize on his teammate’s misfortune to tame “The Lady in Black.”
Kenseth’s victory, his third of the season and 27th of his Cup career although his crew chief Jason Ratcliff was not in the pit box for Saturday's race while serving a NASCAR suspension.
“I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said. “This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career. I 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 but those two last adjustments were just awesome. To be able to duke it out with Kyle there — he’s a great teammate.”
Although he started seventh, Kenseth didn’t really show his strength until he took the lead from Busch on Lap 53 after Busch pitted.
But Busch, who had won Friday night’s Nationwide Series race and was hoping to sweep the weekend for the third time this season, ran over a piece of debris in the final 30 laps and lost the handling on his car.
“Kyle Busch was the fastest thing here from flag to flag,” said his crew chief Dave Rogers. “Just had a great car . . . thought we were going to capitalize, but when we came in, there was only 12 pounds in the right rear and you can see a hole in the tread.
“Thankfully, Kyle stayed on the wheel and didn’t wreck the car.”
Considering the damage to the tires, it was a valiant effort by Busch, who salvaged a sixth-place finish and gained two positions in the points standings (eighth).
With Saturday's victory, Kenseth — the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion — climbed to third in the points standings. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 59 points. The Chase will consist of the Top 10 drivers in points plus the two drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins after Race 26. The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.
NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., started 16th at Darlington and was running 10th within the first 44 laps. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard car benefited from an early adjustment to continue his forward. Swift work by the No. 88 pit crew kept Earnhardt inside the top 10, and he held on to finish ninth, his eighth career top-10 result at Darlington.
Jeff Gordon made his 700th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Darlington Raceway.
The seven-time Darlington race winner began his milestone start from the eight position and led 16 laps on his way to scoring the 300th top five finish of his storied career.
Outside of scoring an eighth win; this year’s Darlington trip couldn’t have been better for Gordon.
“To have the seven wins here that I have, I couldn't think of a better place to come to and get the 700th start here,” said Gordon. “Then to go out there and have a strong performance, it felt great.
“I wanted the 700th to be a memorable one, and I'm glad it wasn't like last year's memory where we blew two left rear tires back to back. This was much better than that. Top three, that's fantastic. I mean, we needed this kind of performance, a gutsy performance, for the points as well as to make this one memorable.”
“I don't know. I just kind of got into a rhythm. It felt good to me. I was enjoying it. I feel like green flag stops kind of separate the good pit crews and teams, and you can get yourself in a position, where as a competitor, you want to race against the least amount of guys as possible.”
The finish moved Gordon to 12th in the Sprint Cup Series point standings as he continues his drive to secure a spot in the Chase. With a break next weekend for the Sprint All-Star Race, a solid run Saturday night was perfect timing.
Jimmie Johnson maintained the lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings by 44 points over Carl Edwards. The Chase will consist of the Top 10 drivers in points plus the two drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins after Race 26. The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.
Next up for the Sprint Cup drivers is the Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte on Saturday, May 18 (6:30 p.m. EDT, SPEED, MRN Radio and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 90).