Kenseth gets dream win at Darlington
DARLINGTON, S.C. ( David Newton / ESPN.com ) -- Matt Kenseth has been compared to NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson more than once in his career for the way he lays back, saves his car and then comes on strong at the end.
He certainly resembled him Saturday at a track where nobody has won more than "The Silver Fox."
On a night when it appeared Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch was headed for his second victory of the week, Kenseth got his in a roundabout sort of way.
He passed Busch for the lead with 13 laps remaining and then pulled away for his first win at famed Darlington Raceway, where Pearson has won a record 10 times.
And that other win?
On Wednesday, Kenseth and team owner Joe Gibbs scored a victory in an appeal that saw the National Stock Car Racing Commission overturn or greatly reduce most of the penalties NASCAR levied after an April 21 win at Kansas Speedway.
Busch was happy for Kenseth's win on Wednesday. Saturday's probably didn't sit well judging from the way he fumed over the final laps as he faded to a sixth-place finish in a race he led 265 of 367 laps.
"I've never been so disgusted in my whole entire life," Busch said over his radio. "This is pathetic!"
A few expletives followed.
They were the kind of words you envisioned drivers uttering during Pearson's illustrious career (1960-86) in which he won 105 times, second only to Richard Petty.
Kenseth, 41, is a long way from that. Saturday's win was only the 27th of his career.
But he certainly is making a case as a future Hall of Famer, and making an even stronger case as a championship contender this season.
The win was a series-best third of the season for the 2003 champion, who moved from Roush Fenway Racing to JGR during the offseason hoping to re-energize his career.
But three wins in 11 races? That's the kind of regularity with which Pearson won during his heyday.
"Honestly, I've only dreamed about winning the Southern 500," Kenseth said. "This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career."
This from a driver who has won two Daytona 500s.
That Kenseth won without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was serving a suspension that was reduced from six races to one during the appeal of penalties from an engine connecting rod that was 2.7 grams too light, made it even more impressive.
Kenseth and interim crew chief Wally Brown worked steadily to improve the handling all night. At one point he had no better than a fifth-place car. He restarted second on the final restart with 30 to go. With 14 laps remaining he made a move inside of Busch, backed off a bit and then completed the pass a lap later.
From there, it was no contest.
"Unbelievable," Kenseth said on his cool-down lap. "Let's keep it rolling, guys. Man, this is fun."
And as good as Kenseth is at protecting his equipment, he doesn't always lurk as Pearson was famous for doing. Kenseth led a race-high 163 laps at Kansas and a race-high 140 at Richmond.
"Tonight it kind of worked out like that," he said of resembling Pearson. "We've led a lot of laps this year."
Kenseth also understands what Busch is going through. He dominated last week's race at Talladega Superspeedway, leading a race-high 142 laps and starting first on a green-white-checkered finish.
He finished eighth.
So he doesn't have to walk on eggshells around his teammate in next week's debriefing.
"Look, we've all been there," Kenseth said. "Man, it's crushing when you lead all day like that and don't come home with a win, especially if it's something that you get a flat tire or something. Really disappointing.
"Kyle and Denny [Hamlin] both, they're great teammates. They're both capable of winning any racetrack, any week. That helps me a lot. That really makes me a better driver, elevates my game."
Kenseth has elevated JGR to arguably the top spot in the garage, ahead of Hendrick Motorsports, which saw Jeff Gordon finish third in his 700th career start and Jimmie Johnson fourth.
This weekend was a prime example. JGR finished 1-2-3 in Friday's Nationwide Series race with Busch, Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers, and 1-2 on Saturday with Hamlin finishing second in his first full race since suffering a lower back injury on March 24.
All is good on that front, too.
But the week definitely belonged to Kenseth. Almost everything that was stripped away from his Kansas win was returned on Wednesday, and four days later he took what looked like a win for Busch away.
"I don't feel I've had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment," said Kenseth, who moved from fourth to third in the standings. "This is obviously a really historic racetrack. The Southern 500 is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.
"It's pretty good to be able to stand in Victory Lane at this place, the same spot where all the other great drivers stood."
The list of winners at Darlington reads like a Hall of Fame more than any other track in the circuit. Seldom does a driver win here by accident.
And it was no accident that Kenseth won on Saturday. He belongs on such an elite list.
And maybe one day some young driver will be compared to Kenseth the way he is compared to Pearson, arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
But Kenseth has a lot of unfinished business before it gets to that point. He's on a mission.
"I'm trying to look forward and not back," he said. "I've been very fortunate. I got the good job. I got the easy job. They give me cars that are this fast and drive like this, it sure is a lot of fun."