Kyle Busch headed into Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington (S.C.) Speedway looking for the weekend Darlington sweep after dominating and winning the Nationwide Series race at the track the night before. Just as in the Nationwide race, Busch dominated the Southern 500, but fell short of the win. After leading 265 laps of the 347-lap race, Busch wound up outside the top-five in sixth.
Instead, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth was the driver celebrating the race win, his third of the season and the first of his career at Darlington, despite his regular crew chief being physically absent because of suspension.
“I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said. “This is probably one of the biggest wins of my career.”
Another Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin finished second in his first full race after being sidelined for about a month-and-a-half for a back injury.
“I’m tired, just worn out,” Hamlin said after the race.
Jeff Gordon was the highest-finishing non-JGR driver, taking third. Finishing fourth was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson.
“I thought (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) called a great race,” Gordon said. “We made the right adjustments at the right time.”
Busch was still continuing his dominance of the race with 13 laps to go when he was passed by Kenseth for the top spot. In the laps that remained, he lost additional positions. In addition to being passed by Kenseth, Hamlin, Gordon and Johnson in the final laps, Kevin Harvick also passed Busch to claim the final spot inside the top-five.
Pole sitter Kurt Busch led the way until just before lap 80 when both Kyle Busch and Kenseth passed him to get into the top-two. The JGR duo of Busch and Kenseth ran first and second until Hamlin got off pit road second and ahead of Kenseth by taking only two tires during the first caution of the race on lap 124 to gain eight spots and restart second.
On lap 135, though, Kenseth retook the second spot Both Busch and Kenseth were among the last two to pit during a cycle of green flag pit stops that started on lap 178, and as a result, lost time to those who pitted earlier. When the cycle completed, the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Gordon and Johnson were in the top-two spots instead the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Busch and Kenseth.
It didn’t take long for Busch to get back to the front, though, passing Gordon to take the lead on lap 205. Soon after, Gordon was also passed by Johnson for second. Busch and Johnson then ran one and two for several laps, until Johnson gave up second to head down pit road during a caution that came out with 55 laps to go.
Johnson’s pit stop moved Kenseth up to second to restart next to Busch, and Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Gordon to restart third and fourth. Johnson restarted fifth on four new tires.
Both Kahne and Johnson got by Kenseth on the restart to take second and third. Another caution came out a few laps leader, putting Busch and Kahne side-by-side on the front row for the restart. Kahne challenged Busch for the lead when the race went back to green, even getting out in front of Busch, but his lead was very short-lived. Kahne hit the wall with 34 laps to go, right after he cleared Busch, to bring out the fifth and final caution of the race.
“We were racing hard,” Kahne said. “I cleared him getting into (turn) three. I knew he wouldn’t be able to turn getting into the corner.”
By the time the yellow had waved, JGR was in possession of the top-three spots in the running order, with Busch up front, Kenseth back up to second and Hamlin in third. A few laps after the race went back to green, Busch began losing spots and continued to drop back until the checkered flag.
Carl Edwards was the only Ford driver to finish in the top-10, finishing seventh. The rest of the top-10 included Juan Montoya in eighth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ninth and Ryan Newman rounding out the top-10.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR