KENSETH IS KING

Buoyed by reduced penalties, Kenseth wins his first at Darlington Raceway

ashain@thestate.comMay 12, 2013 

NASCAR Darlington Auto Racing

Matt Kenseth does a burnout after winning Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

MIC SMITH — AP

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    TOP FINISHERS: 1. Matt Kenseth 2. Denny Hamlin 3. Jeff Gordon 4. Jimmie Johnson 5. Kevin Harvick

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    See a photo gallery from Saturday’s race at Darlington at thestate.com

— Kyle Busch dominated much of the Southern 500 by holding off drivers from rival Hendrick Motorsports.

But Busch couldn’t keep back his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates — Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — who passed him in the final 13 laps as his Toyota became too loose.

Kenseth — guided by a substitute crew chief with Jason Ratcliff under a one-race suspension — grabbed his series-best third win of the season and his first victory at the historic track.

Hamlin — completing his first full race since injuring his back in a wreck at California in March — finished second. Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon, in his 700th career start, and points leader Jimmie Johnson finished third and fourth.

Kenseth set a Darlington track record of 141.386 mph during a race with 25 caution laps. The track pole record also was broken during the weekend as NASCAR’s redesigned Gen-6 cars showed their speed that racers expected.

Though Kenseth’s crew chief was not in South Carolina, Ratcliff helped the team from a command center at the Gibbs headquarters outside Charlotte. The crew chief was suspended after a post-race inspection after Kenseth’s victory in Kansas found an engine rod that was too light.

Kenseth said in Victory Lane that he was sorry to miss his crew chief: “This is obviously his team and his effort.”

But Kenseth commended interim crew chief Wally Brown, who has worked with Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray.

“We had a fifth- or sixth-place car fighting loose — those last two adjustments were just awesome,” he said.

Ratcliff will be back for the next points race in Charlotte in two weeks after an appeals panel reduced NASCAR’s penalties against the team. The crew chief’s suspension was reduced from six races to one, while the team’s points penalty decreased from 50 to 12.

The news lifted the team, which has taken off this year with Kenseth, who is in his first season driving for Gibbs after 13 seasons with Jack Roush. Kenseth sits third in points behind Johnson and Edwards.

The three Gibbs cars battled the quartet from Hendrick much of night at Darlington.

Gibbs driver Kyle Busch was the weekend’s dominant driver, winning the Nationwide race Friday and owning much of the Sprint Cup race Saturday.

Busch led all but 102 of the 367 laps on Saturday. He passed his brother, pole-sitter Kurt Busch, by lap 73 and held off reigning Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson and Johnson’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, late in the race.

Kyle Busch brushed off several surges by Johnson, the series points leader, and then brushed the air off Johnson’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, leading to his crash with 32 laps remaining.

But as adjustments helped Kenseth, changes to Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the final pit stop hurt his chances for a weekend sweep. Kyle Busch came out first onto the track but became too loose to keep the lead.

Kenseth tracked down his teammate with 13 laps remaining and then four more drivers got by Kyle Busch for a disappointing sixth-place finish.

“He definitely won’t be happy, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said about his teammate. “It’s tough when you have a car that was as dominant as his and then the last run whatever happens happens. But it’s part of the game of racing.”

Hamlin was the runner-up at Darlington for a second straight season. He said he is not quite back in racing shape after his back injury.

“I’m sore and I’m tired,” Hamlin said. “It like starting your season over.”

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