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.