DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth is quickly showing how well he fits in at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth passed JGR teammate Kyle Busch 13 laps from the end to win the Southern 500 on Saturday night, his third victory in his debut season after a successful stint with Roush Fenway Racing.
JGR president J.D. Gibbs knew he was getting a champion in Kenseth. Still, even he’s been surprised with how fast the new driver has come up to speed alongside teammates Denny Hamlin and Busch.
“He’s a good leader,” J.D. Gibbs said. “Denny and Kyle really like having him there and hearing what he has to say. And on the track, he’s got a gift.”
He proved that again at Darlington, where Kenseth patiently sat behind Busch much of the race before the right adjustments to the car clicked. It didn’t hurt that Busch, who led 265 of 367 laps, cut a right rear tire down the stretch that cost him.
Once Kenseth cleared his teammate, he had clear sailing toward his 27th career Sprint Cup victory.
“I’ve got the good job and I’ve got the easy job,” Kenseth said. “When they give me cars this fast, it’s a lot of fun.”
Hamlin completed his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back on March 24 and finished right behind Kenseth. Jeff Gordon finished third in his 700th straight career start. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
Kenseth’s victory came without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was suspended for the No. 20 Toyota having an illegal part in a win at Kansas.
Carl Edwards finished seventh, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10.
“This is a dream come true,” Kenseth shouted on his radio. “Thank you guys very much.”
Hamlin might’ve thought the same thing after his second-place finish. The driver missed four races because of the injury and ran just 23 laps at Talladega last weekend handing the car off to replacement driver Brian Vickers.
Hamlin’s finish was just what the team needed as it tries to move up from 31st place when the week began into 20th.