DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go to win his first Southern 500 on Saturday night.
Busch had the strongest car for much of the race and led for 265 of the 367 laps at Darlington Raceway. But his machine appeared to fall away at the worst possible time and he faded to sixth.
Denny Hamlin completed his first full race since suffering a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back March 24, finishing second.
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, where it'd be eligible for a wild-card entry into NASCAR’s championship chase.
As Hamlin neared the end of the grueling 500 miles, crew chief Darian Grubb radioed his appreciation.
‘‘I am extremely proud of you there, buddy. Just an awesome job hanging with it all day,’’ Grubb radioed as they closed in on the finish.
‘‘Thank you so much. I appreciate it,’’ Hamlin replied.
Hamlin wasn’t sore, just worn out after leaving the car. ‘‘This is a tough, grueling race,’’ he said. ‘‘Nothing to hang our heads about coming up second for second year in a row.’’
Kenseth had won three times here in the Nationwide Series, but had never come closer than third in Sprint Cup. Once he cleared Busch, Kenseth had smooth sailing to the finish to win for the third time in his debut JGR season. It was Kenseth’s 27th career Sprint Cup victory.
Busch stayed on top through several stretches of green-flag racing and through the first four restarts. But his machine couldn’t keep up after Kenseth went by.