DARLINGTON, S.C. – Matt Kenseth has rarely been more pleased in victory than he was this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Maybe that’s because of what he overcame to achieve the win.
Kenseth has long been one of NASCAR’s stars, a past champion with two Daytona 500 titles. But the 41-year-old racer has found a new gear in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth passed JGR teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps left Saturday night to win for the first time at Darlington and third time this season. The latest win came with replacement crew chief Wally Brown, pressed into service because of the suspension of Jason Ratcliff.
Like many hurdles in Kenseth’s way, he drove right through it on the way to Victory Lane.
“To be able to win a race at a track like this, especially the Southern 500, man, it’s big,” Kenseth said. “In my mind, it’s one of the biggest races we have of the year, really.”
And it didn’t come easily.
Kenseth’s team dealt with a NASCAR appeals decision earlier in the week that lessened the penalties levied on the No. 20 for using an illegal part in a win at Kansas Speedway last month. Ratcliff’s suspension was reduced from six races to one, meaning Kenseth still had to hear a different voice in his headset at difficult Darlington. He also had to deal with a strong car from his own race shop in Busch, who led 265 of 367 laps and didn’t look like he’d be caught.
Instead, Kenseth kept positive and kept everyone pointed toward the top.
“I knew at that point we’d be OK, if we just kept up with the track positions that we would have a good night,” Brown said of his first-ever Sprint Cup victory as crew chief.
Ratcliff helped formulate a plan headed into the weekend, one that Kenseth and Brown enacted to perfection.
Kenseth was jovial while meeting with the media as the team owner, ex-NFL coach Joe Gibbs, sat in the back of the room smiling over the success of his newest driver. Kenseth says he has bonded quickly with Ratcliff and everyone involved with the No. 20 Toyota.
“I really feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky’s the limit,” Kenseth said.
J.D. Gibbs, JGR president, said Kenseth has brought leadership and experience to the team that teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin have appreciated.
“I think Denny and Kyle really like having him there, hearing what he has to say,” J.D. Gibbs said. “On the racetrack, he just has a gift.”
Is it a gift Kenseth’s unwrapping too soon with six months and 25 races remaining? Not in Kenseth’s eyes.
“I think the goal of a race team and an organization is to never peak, I think it’s to continue to keep getting better,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve seen over there pretty much from day one (at JGR). They’re not standing still.”