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Sprint Cup Recap — Bojangles’ Southern 500

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Matt Kenseth scored his 3rd win of 2013 in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Saturday night after passing his teammate, Kyle Busch, with under 15 laps to go.

Kenseth was seen as a long shot since he was without his usual crew chief Jason Ratcliff, but replacement Wally Brown made two late-race calls on adjustments that helped the #20 car improve and overtake Kyle Busch’s #18 for the lead.

“I feel really bad that Jason isn’t here,” Kenseth said in victory lane.  “This is obviously his team and his effort, but Wally did a great job filling in.”

The Southern 500 is one of the biggest races on the NASCAR calendar every year, and Kenseth didn’t shy away from relishing his first victory at the Lady in Black.

“I’ve only dreamed about winning the Southern 500,” Kenseth said.  “This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career.“

And that’s coming from a guy that has won the Daytona 500 twice.

No doubt the #20 team is on a roll, but we often get caught up in talking about drivers that are, “on fire,” or, “in a slump.”  We say things like, “this guy has gone 100 races without a win,” all without thinking about what NASCAR actually is.

NASCAR is a motorsport.

And unlike most sports, the equipment the competitor is using is a major determining factor of their success.  Matt Kenseth won yesterday, yes, but also note that Denny Hamlin, his teammate, finished 2nd and his other teammate, Kyle Busch, led the most laps and finished 6th.  Heck, during the Nationwide Series race Saturday JGR cars finished 1-2-3.

On the other hand, Kenseth’s former team, Roush-Fenway Racing, had only 1 car in the top-10: Carl Edwards in 7th.  Greg Biffle finished 13th and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 18th.

So, here’s what we know:  Matt Kenseth is a good driver, but he’s also in an awesome car right now.  On the other hand, Roush-Fenway is struggling.  That’s making this whole thing seem pretty one-sided.

To those that think Roush-Fenway made a mistake by letting Matt Kenseth leave, let me ask you this: exactly what were they going to do with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?  Let the two-time Nationwide champ run ANOTHER season in that series?  He was ready to move up, and they had to make room for him to do so.

If it sounds like I’m belittling Matt Kenseth, I’m not.  Kenseth stepped into Joe Gibbs Racing as a Sprint Cup Champion.  That’s something JGR hasn’t had since Tony Stewart left to build his own empire at Stewart-Haas Racing.  He immediately became the leader of that organization, much like he was the leader at Roush-Fenway Racing in the past.

There’s no denying the #20 team is one of the best in NASCAR right now.  Outside of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 bunch, I don’t see another true contender for the title.  But, let’s not jump on Jack Roush for letting Kenseth go.  Matt Kenseth hasn’t had a resurgence at Joe Gibbs Racing.  Joe Gibbs Racing has had a resurgence and Matt Kenseth has been the beneficiary.

Here’s what else we learned in Darlington Saturday night:

Jeff Gordon is one of the top 3 drivers of all time.  In case you’re wondering, I put Richard Petty 1st and Dale Earnhardt 2nd on that list.  Gordon raced in his 700th Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Darlington, and notched his 300th career top-5 finish.  Think about that: 700 starts, 300 top-5’s.  Unreal.

Darlington was gentle.  The track, “too tough to tame,” was unusually tame last night.  There were only a handful of cautions during the event, and only one of the yellow flags was the result of an actual race-ending crash.  The race went on at a blisteringly fast pace, and the Gen-6 car seemed to handle the track well.

Denny Hamlin is back.  No pun intended here.  The back injury that kept Denny out of the race car for the last month seems to have healed up.  Denny commented after the race that he was tired, and a little out of racing shape, but Darlington is a tough 500 miles.  He’ll be back to full strength at Charlotte next weekend, and a 2nd place finish had to feel good.

Tommy Joe Martins is a former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver & a weekly racer at the historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, he’s been a sports columnist for Guy Speed Sports, a radio host & a life-long NASCAR fan.

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