Matt Kenseth claimed his third win of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season at Darlington, while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin finished a superb second on his return from back injuries.
The race looked like it would deliver an Gibbs 1-2-3, though, only for Kyle Busch to tumble back to sixth in the closing laps as his handling faded after what had been a dominant evening.
The Busch brothers were the main protagonists in the early laps, as polesitter Kurt Busch kept his Furniture Row Chevrolet at the front for 69 laps before Kyle got through. Once up front, Kyle Busch looked unstoppable, leading 265 of the 367 laps until his Toyota's balance went off in the closing stages.
The Gibbs and Hendrick teams had dominated the night, and Kenseth was first in line to pounce as Busch hit trouble, taking the lead 12 laps from the finish. In his first full race distance since sustaining back injuries at Fontana in March, Hamlin was a front-runner throughout and was next to overtake Busch. Although Hamlin could not chase down victorious teammate Kenseth, he did manage to fend off Hendrick duo Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for second.
"Honestly, I've only dreamed about winning the Southern 500," said Kenseth, whose 27th Sprint Cup victory was his first at the venerable track. "This to me probably feels bigger than any win in my career. I really feel bad that Jason [Ratcliff, crew chief, who was on suspension for this race] isn't here. This is obviously his team and his effort.
"We had a fifth- or sixth-place car, fighting loose, (and) those last two adjustments (on pit road) were just awesome."
For Hamlin, second place was the best he could have hoped for, given the strength of Kenseth's car in the closing laps.
"For me, we kept grinding away," Hamlin said, clearly tired from the effort of his first race back at one of NASCAR racing's most demanding tracks. "Pit crew picked us up some spots, obviously, throughout the night.
"It was one of those days where we got our car better, pit crew picked us up positions, took us to the most optimum spot we could get to — and that was second."
From a physical standpoint, Hamlin admitted the race took its toll.
"Really, it's just like starting your season over," he said. "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 (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte), and we'll be good to go then."
Fellow Hendrick drive Kasey Kahne should have been up there, too, but for a crash while completing a passing move on Busch. Busch eventually fell to sixth behind Childress driver Kevin Harvick.
Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman completed the top 10, while Kurt Busch fell back to 14th by the finish.
Champion Brad Keselowski finished nine laps down in 32nd after getting collected as Casey Mears crashed.
Results - 367 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Matt Kenseth Joe Gibbs Toyota 3h32m45.000s
2. Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Toyota + 3.155s
3. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 3.761s
4. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 4.467s
5. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 7.059s
6. Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Toyota + 7.880s
7. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 8.108s
8. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 8.884s
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 9.014s
10. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 9.815s
11. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 10.283s
12. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 10.519s
13. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 11.350s
14. Kurt Busch Furniture Row Chevrolet + 12.165s
15. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 12.665s
16. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 20.557s
17. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet + 22.999s
18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr Roush Fenway Ford + 1 lap
19. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap
20. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 1 lap
21. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 2 laps
22. Joey Logano Penske Ford + 2 laps
23. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota + 3 laps
24. Regan Smith Phoenix Chevrolet + 4 laps
25. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 4 laps
26. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 4 laps
27. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 5 laps
28. Danica Patrick Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 5 laps
29. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 5 laps
30. Landon Cassill Circle Sport Chevrolet + 7 laps
31. Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota + 8 laps
32. Brad Keselowski Penske Ford + 9 laps
33. Timmy Hill FAS Lane Ford + 9 laps
34. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 9 laps
35. JJ Yeley Baldwin Chevrolet + 13 laps
David Reutimann BK Toyota 327 laps
Casey Mears Germain Ford 327 laps
Josh Wise Front Row Ford 326 laps
David Ragan Front Row Ford 318 laps
David Stremme Swan Toyota 230 laps
Scott Speed Leavine Ford 77 laps
Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 58 laps
Mike Bliss Humphrey Smith Toyota 18 laps