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 it.
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 victory 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 did not 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 did not think the appeals result would've changed the approach or outcome at Darlington. "Jason would have been home either way. So I don't think it would have made any difference," he said.
Kenseth has made a difference since his Sprint Cup debut in 1998 when he filled in for Bill Elliott at Dover. The next season he began his distinguished career driving for Jack Roush with five races.
In 2000, Kenseth won the Coca-Cola 600, still the only rookie to win the circuit's longest race. Kenseth's break-through year came in 2002 when he led Sprint Cup with five victories. He won his points championship in 2003 and was runner-up for the title three years later.
But after winning 15 times over seven seasons, he managed only eight victories in the past five years. Kenseth said he left Roush Fenway Racing for what he described as personal reasons. Last October, he tried to cover up tears when he drove to victory at Kansas for the final time at RFR. This past March, the laid-back Kenseth let his joy show at Las Vegas when he won for the first time with JGR.
He gained a second victory a month ago in Kansas before notching his series-best third win Saturday night at Darlington.
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."