The significance of winning at Darlington is no more evident than when a two-time Daytona 500 champion emerges from his car and says it's the biggest of his career.
That two-time 500 champion is Matt Kenseth, and he passed teammate Kyle Busch with 14 laps to go to take the lead of Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500 to get his first win at Darlington and third win of the season. And it's a win that comes just three days after Kenseth's team saw the penalties that NASCAR levied against it after his win at Kansas severely lessened.
"Honestly, I've only dreamed about winning the Southern 500," Kenseth said. "This to me feels to me probably bigger than any win of my career. So I really feel bad that (crew chief Jason Ratcliff)'s not here, this is obviously his team and his effort but (interim crew chief Wally Brown) did a great job filling in and all these guys behind me. We had a fifth or sixth place car, fighting loose and those last two adjustments were just awesome."
On Tuesday, it wasn't too farfetched to think that Kenseth could miss the Chase this year. Now, there's no doubt that he'll be in the 12 driver field after Richmond in September.
After Kansas, when NASCAR found that Kenseth's car had a connecting rod in the engine that was less than three grams too light, Kenseth was penalized 50 points, saw the win removed from counting towards the Chase and his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was suspended for six races and fined $250,000 (among other penalties). On Wednesday, an appeals panel gave Kenseth 38 of those points back, the three points in the Chase for the win back, and reduced Ratcliff's suspension to just for Saturday night's race.
(And before you ask, yes, Kenseth's car and engine will be taken back for further inspection again, as is customary for every race winner.)
Now Kenseth is third in the points standings and all three of his wins will count towards his bid for the Chase. Just like series points leader Jimmie Johnson, who has two wins, Kenseth and team now don't have to worry about their points standings and attempt to accumulate as many bonus points as possible for the Chase.
Throughout the majority of Saturday night's race, Busch had a stranglehold on the field. At one point, thanks to just one caution during the race's first 302 laps and Busch's dominance, there were just 11 cars on the lead lap.
As the caution flags started to accumulate over the race's last 60 laps, Brown was able to make those adjustments Kenseth mentioned. Though as Busch sprinted out to a one-second lead on the race's final restart, it still looked like his race to lose.
However, Kenseth started making up considerable ground in turns three and four especially, and drove away from Busch, whose car started to slow considerably, evidently from a cut right rear tire. Busch led a race high 265 laps but fell from 2nd to 6th over the race's final nine laps. After the race, the team said the right rear had just 12 pounds of air left in it when the car was brought back to the garage.