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 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 have 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.
"I really feel like with this team, driving this car, I feel like the sky's the limit," Kenseth said.