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Kenseth no worse for wear

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Tuesday, May. 14, 2013

There’s a common axiom in racing: “Winning fixes everything.”

Joe Gibbs Racing may want to amend that this week to: “Winning – and a lenient appeals panel – fixes everything.”

Matt Kenseth’s so-far stellar first season driving for JGR got the wind knocked out of it three weeks ago when NASCAR levied unprecedented harsh penalties on his No. 20 team after the engine in his car failed inspection after his win at Kansas.

Saturday night, Kenseth added a victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – his third Sprint Cup Series win of the season – and combined with JGR’s big win its appeal earlier in the week, Kenseth is virtually back to where he was before this all began.

And where is that?

From all indications, Kenseth appears on track to having perhaps his best season since he won his Cup series championship in 2003 with team owner Jack Roush.

The true emotion heard from Kenseth over his team’s radio as he crossed the finish line provided a glimpse to what this all means for a generally reserved driver and one who appreciates the history of the sport.

“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” Kenseth said after the race. “This is obviously a historic race track, the Southern 500 is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to stand in Victory Lane at this place, (the) same spot where all the other great drivers stood. (It’s) pretty neat to win, for sure.”

Kenseth now has the most wins of any driver this season (three) and is currently third in the series standings, 59 behind leader Jimmie Johnson heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The season is already a special one for Kenseth, but also for JGR. Kenseth and his teammate, Kyle Busch, have won five of the 11 Cup races held this season.

In fact, it was Busch who for much of Saturday night appeared headed to Victory Lane. He led 265 of the 367 laps and was virtually unchallenged until the last 35 laps.

On a restart on Lap 333 following a caution, Kasey Kahne caught Busch and the two began racing hard for the lead. Eventually, Kahne ended up slapping the wall, derailing his chances at the win.

Busch still led on a restart on Lap 338 following the caution for Kahne’s incident. But 15 laps later, Kenseth caught Busch and made his way around his teammate and into the lead for good with 12 laps remaining.

Busch fell back in the final laps with a tire going down and ended up sixth. Kenseth held off teammate Denny Hamlin for the win, with Jeff Gordon finishing third, Johnson fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.

“I feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky’s the limit,” Kenseth said. “This stuff has been incredibly fast.”

The win was the first for Kenseth’s crew chief, Wally Brown, who was substituting for Kenseth’s regular crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who still had to serve a one-race suspension for the engine violation at Kansas.

“I was talking to Wally Brown a little bit earlier,” said team president, J.D. Gibbs. “I said, ‘Hey, you coming out of retirement? He said, ‘I’ve re-retired. I’m done.’

“We love the fact our penalty got cut back, but no one loved it as much as Wally did.”

The race was the first Hamlin ran the full distance since breaking a vertebra in his back during a violent wreck in March in Fontana, Calif.

Hamlin went to congratulate Kenseth in Victory Lane after the race.

“I think when you’re not in the sport, you haven’t been driving for a while, it reignites that passion,” Gibbs said. “I think he’s excited to be back.”

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