In a race that might not go down as one of the most thrilling and spectacular on track, the significance of the 2013 Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Speedway was all in the numbers.
It was the first time that Kurt Busch had started from pole position in nearly two years, for example. And he went on to lead the first 69 laps of the race right ahead of his little brother Kyle Busch, who took over on lap 74 and went on to complete 265 of the 367-lap race in the lead and threatened to completely dominate the event just as he had its Nationwide equivalent the previous night.
But a late flat right rear tyre on the #18 dropped Busch to sixth place and allowed his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth to take over the lead with just 13 laps remaining, and he went on to record his third win of the year in what's been a truly winning week for him and the #20: together with the 38 points he got handed back after a successful appeal for penalties for a rules infraction at Kansas last month, the win propels Kenseth into third place in the Sprint Cup championship having exited last week's race at Talladega bumping along in 11th.
"Honestly, I've only dreamed about winning the Southern 500," said Kenseth, who notched his first victory at Darlington, his third of the season and the 27th of his career. "This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career ... We had a fifth- or sixth-place car, fighting loose, [before] those last two adjustments [on pit road, which] were just awesome."
It was even more impressive given that this is the race that Kenseth's regular crew chief Jason Ratcliff has to sit out as a result of his reduced penalty suspension. "I really feel bad that Jason isn't here. This is obviously his team and his effort," said Kenseth, who relied on interim crew chief Wally Brown at Darlington.
It was a good day for another JGR driver as well: having tentatively returned to racing last week for just 23 laps following the compression fracture he sustained at Fontana the week before Easter, Denny Hamllin completed the full race distance at Darlington and he wasn't just making up the numbers - he finished in second place, three seconds adrift of Kenseth.
"For me, we kept grinding away," said Hamlin, adding that it felt like starting the season all over again. "To start it back over at Darlington for 500 miles, there's some muscles that have gotten weak. I've gotten pretty sore and tired, mentally tired as well. We'll have a couple of weeks really to rest until the next long event, and we'll be good to go then."
That starts the long road to recovery for Hamlin in the standings: the second place gains him four places in the standings, but that still leaves him well down the order in 27th because of his enforced five-race absence.
Behind Hamlin at Darlington was Jeff Gordon, who had his own numbers to celebrate: this was his 700th start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, quite a landmark and a pleasingly strong result to mark the occasion.
"We all wanted this 700th start to be a memorable one," he said afterwards, crediting his crew and the crew chief Alan Gustafson for making it happen. "Alan called great calls and the pit stops were fantastic; especially when it counted the most there at the end.
"We were just bouncing between tight and loose and right there at the end, it was about the best that it had been all night," he said. "To be able to have good track position and have the car pretty well working for you; so, it was a really solid night. I'm very proud of this."
Gordon finished one place ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson, who retains a comfortable 44 point lead in the Sprint Cup standings as a result of another strong finish this week.
"It was just a great 500 miles here at Darlington," said Johnson. "There is nothing easy about this race track. It keeps you on your toes all night long. We had a great car. we lost a little track position at the end but we still got back into the top five.
"I kind of ran second and third all night long; wish I was a little bit better, but this Emerald Green Lowe's Chevrolet was doing a good job," he said. "We had fun! I love this place. I wish we could race here three or four times a year."
The race had been marked with very few yellows, the first 124 laps going completely caution free before a caution for debris and then no further interruptions until lap 302. Those long green stints were what first Kurt Bursh and then his little brother Kyle Buch to enjoy such long untroubled stints at the front with the only breaks in their reign coming as a result of pit stop cycles.
The long green runs meant that a lot of big names were forced off the lead lap relatively early on by the hard-charging leaders, and the lack of cautions robbed those backmarkers of a chance of a lucky dog free pass to allow them to recover.
“Those long green flag runs just killed us,” said Stewart/Haas Racing's Danica Patrick, who was already on the back foot having been forced to switch to her practice car after a wreck in Friday's practice session. "It's tough because you get behind, and it's hard to get caught back up when the pace is that fast and there are so little yellows at the beginning.
"We had a setback in practice, and that cut into our practice time and because of that we didn't get to make any qualifying runs, which led us to going out cold in qualifying, which is not a strength of mine anyway," she admitted. "So it was just a tough weekend. Nothing is wasted. No run or no lap is wasted, but sometimes the fruits of your labor aren't realised until later on."
When the cautions came - and there were only four more of them - they were all packed into the last 65 laps of the race. Regan Smith spun out in turn 2 on lap 302; Casey Mears hit the wall coming out of turn 4 and collected Brad Keselowski shortly after the restart, also nearly taking Kurt Busch with them; there was another accident in turn 1 a dozen laps later involving David Reutimann and Josh Wise; and the final caution came on lap 334 when Kasey Kahne spun and hit the wall while going side-by-side with Kyle Busch for the lead of the race.
“It was just close racing really," Kahne said about his accident with Busch. "He messed his entry up; he entered early and then couldn't turn once he did that, so he was just kind of going straight across the track. I was like, 'Figure it out.' If he would just figure it out we wouldn't have any issues.
"I have never even ran into the guy, so it's kind of crazy," he added. "I think he just struggles racing me and he just made an error as far as his entry - like he entered so early and had no steering. You figure that out throughout the whole race; he passed so many lap cars he knew what was going to happen. He tried to stop but he couldn't slow down at that point.
"I don't know, he just kind of just screwed up again - this is his third time this year he has screwed up [while racing me]," signed a frustrated Kahne, although any contact with the #18 had been very light and there didn't appear to be any visible damage on the JGR car.
The fifth and final caution of the night set up the last restart of the race on lap 333 after more than three hours of competition, with Busch taking point alongside his team mate Matt Kenseth. Busch initially leapt away at the front, but that late issue with the flat right rear tyre on the #18 severely handicapped the car and allowed Kenseth to claim the win while Busch struggled to bring his car home without wrecking in sight of the chequered flag.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings