DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go Saturday night to win his first Southern 500.
Busch had the strongest car much of the race and led for 265 of the 367 laps at Darlington Raceway. But his machine faded at the worst possible time and he wound up sixth.
Their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, was second; he completed his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back on March 24.
Jeff Gordon finished third in his 700th straight start. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
Kenseth's victory came without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was suspended for the No. 20 Toyota having an illegal part in a win at Kansas.
"This is a dream come true," Kenseth shouted on his radio. "Thank you guys very much."
Hamlin might've thought the same thing. The driver missed four races because of the injury and ran just 23 laps at Talladega last weekend before handing the car off to replacement driver Brian Vickers.
Hamlin's finish was just what the team needed as it tries to move up from 31st place when the week began into 20th, where it would be eligible for a wild-card entry into NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
As Hamlin neared the end of 500 grueling miles, crew chief Darian Grubb radioed his appreciation of the effort his driver put forth in his first full race back.
"I am extremely proud of you there, buddy. Just an awesome job hanging with it all day," Grubb radioed as they closed in on the finish.
"Thank you so much. I appreciate it," Hamlin replied.
Hamlin wasn't sore, just worn out after leaving the car.
"This is a tough, grueling race," he said. "Nothing to hang our heads about coming up second for a second year in a row."
Kenseth had won three times here in the Nationwide series, but he had never come closer than third, in 2006, in Sprint Cup. That had been his only top-five run at "The Track Too Tough to Tame" in 19 starts.
Busch stayed on top through several stretches of green-flag racing and through the first four restarts. But his car could not keep up after Kenseth went by.
Crew chief Dave Rogers said Busch had a cut tire and only 12 pounds of pressure left when he went into the garage.
Kenseth's victory came with Wally Brown calling the shots as crew chief. Ratcliff is expected back for the next race after JGR had penalties imposed by NASCAR reduced on appeal.
The best chance to defeat Busch appeared to come from Kasey Kahne, who pressured his JGR rival on the restart after the fourth caution period. Kahne looked like he had cleared Busch, but the car got loose and the back end slammed the wall.
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Kahne was not happy with Busch's maneuver.
"Three times this year me and Kyle had contact and I had a chance, capable-winning cars. It's disappointing on the points side and not winning some of these races," Kahne said. "Whether he hit me or just blew the air off, whatever it was, he blew his entry. I'm not sure what he was thinking on that."
Tampa's Aric Almirola was 20th, breaking a string of four consecutive top-10 finishes and falling a spot to ninth in points but still in a Chase for the Championship spot. David Reutimann of Zephyrhills was 36th after being involved in an accident late.