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Kenseth rallies late to win Southern 500 at Darlington
Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)
Kenseth took the lead from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps left after Busch's car began to suffer serious handling issues. Busch had dominated the race prior to that point, and led 265 of the race's 367 total laps.
In capturing his second win in the last four events, Kenseth raced without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who is on suspension by NASCAR for an illegal part found in the motor of the car Kenseth drove to victory at Kansas four weeks ago. He also won earlier in the year at Las Vegas.
Interestingly, not only did Kenseth win Saturday night, his son Ross also won in a lower level race just about an hour or so earlier at South Boston (Va.).
Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, who competed in his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in his back six weeks ago, finished second.
Jeff Gordon earned the 300th top-five finish of his Sprint Cup career in his 700th career Cup start, finishing third, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in fourth and Kevin Harvick in fifth.
With just under 35 laps remaining and both fighting for the lead, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne appeared to touch, sending Kahne scraping the outside wall and bringing out a caution flag. Kahne suffered minor damage and after brief repairs, went back onto the track in 16th place.
As the race restarted, all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars were at the head of the field, led by Busch, followed by teammates Kenseth and Hamlin.
Kurt Busch started on the pole after setting a new track record with a lap of 181.018 mph during Friday's qualifying session. It was his second career pole at Darlington. His first came in September 2001 when he became the youngest pole-sitter in Darlington's long history at 23 years and 29 days old.
Busch dominated the first 73 laps, leading 69 of them, including the first 51. But younger brother Kyle took command of the race on lap 74 and led 109 of the next 111 laps.
Jeff Gordon short-pitted shortly after the halfway mark of the race to grab the lead, but it didn't take Kyle long to regain the lead.
Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne became Kyle's main rivals as the race passed the 200-lap mark.
But Kyle maintained his hold on the top spot as the race entered its final 100 laps.
In the meantime, Kurt began dropping back through the field as he ran into major handling problems.
The top 10 with 80 laps remaining were Kyle Busch, Johnson, Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
For Hamlin, it was his first race back as a "full-time driver" after missing four races and a majority of another due to a compression fracture in his back. Hamlin started the race at Talladega last Sunday, but was relieved by Brian Vickers just 25 laps into the 192-lap race.
With only one caution flag in the first 280 laps, Kyle Busch was on a record pace. He set the record at 140.350 mph with his victory in May 2008.
NOTES: The average speed after 275 laps was 151.863 mph. ... Paul Menard says he's close to a contract extension with Richard Childress Racing and hopes to have an announcement to that effect shortly. "I haven't signed anything. Hopefully, we do that soon," Menard told FoxSports.com. Menard's crew chief, Richard "Slugger" Labbe, already has signed an extension with RCR, and he and Menard have been an inseparable and successful pair for the past four seasons, the past three with Childress. Since coming to RCR with Labbe in 2011, Menard has enjoyed his three most productive seasons. Though the first 10 races this year he's ninth in the standings and happy to be with the Childress organization. ... Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington marked Jeff Gordon's 700th start in the Sprint Cup Series.