Who’s In The Headline
Once Ryan Blaney faded, Jimmie Johnson got his NASCAR groove back Sunday at one of his favorite places: Texas Motor Speedway. In a dramatic drive from the back to the front, Johnson earned his seventh win in 28 starts at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. It was the top story in a Hendrick Motorsports resurgence that leaves them pumped heading to Easter Break. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran fifth for his best finish of 2017, breathing life into the much-maligned 48/88 shop.
Johnson’s victory was a comeback considering he was one of several top contenders struggling to conquer the newly-repaved TMS racing surface. Johnson spun during qualifying, flat-spotted his tires and started from the back once the team changed to a fresh set. But crew chief Chad Knaus calmly guided his driver through the field, the duo clicking like many times before en route to another worst-to-first NASCAR triumph.
It was sophomore Blaney and the Wood Brothers, not Johnson who stole the show early in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. The No. 21 Ford started on the front row, won the first two stages and led a race-high 148 laps. But a caution five laps before the end of stage two left varying pit strategies which jumbled the running order. Blaney stayed on track, earning him ten more bonus points but that second stage triumph came with a cost.
Pitting during the ensuing caution left Blaney too far back, unable to make up crucial track position. A late driver error on his part then killed any shot at the win. He slid through his pit box, costing the team valuable time and wound up unable to pass in traffic. Mired in midpack, he fell to 17th at one point and only worked his way back to 12th.
That mistake threw the race wide open. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Joey Logano then took turns at the front; any of the trio could have won. Logano gambled for track position late, left out on track while the rest of the field cycled through green-flag pit stops. It almost looked like that gamble, a dice roll from crew chief Todd Gordon was going to pay off.
But new pavement, often an equalizer for tires let Logano down in the closing laps. Johnson, armed with two fresh Goodyears, ran down the driver of the No. 22 Ford with just 17 laps remaining. Behind him, Kyle Larson mounted a charge in the final 10 laps but was shut down once he spent eight of those circuits battling Logano for second.
Why You Should Care
For all the fuss about Johnson’s performance so far this season, it’s worth paying attention and knowing that you should never count him – or crew chief Chad Knaus – out, no matter the circumstances. Sure, the No. 48 team had an uncharacteristically rough start to the season. But did you really expect Johnson to come to Texas and not be a contender? Once again, the seven-time champion snookered them all with his seventh victory out in Fort Worth.
The win, like with anyone this stage of the game is crucial for Johnson, Knaus, and Hendrick Motorsports. The No. 48 team is locked in the playoffs, barring a shocker that gives us more than 16 race winners to choose from. He can spend the remainder of the regular season racking up the points needed to sustain a record-breaking eighth championship attempt.
What Your Friends Are Talking About
Perhaps the biggest story of the weekend was TMS’ newly-repaved racing surface. As most new asphalt does, the track struggled to take on rubber early in the weekend, creating slick conditions that plagued even the most experienced drivers. But track President Eddie Gossage saw the problem, reacting quickly to keep this 500-mile competition from becoming a single-file parade. Saturday night into early Sunday, an all-out effort to lay down rubber, using the Tire Monster and Tire Dragon resulted in a slightly wider groove by race time. And while the groove widened even more throughout the afternoon, clean air and track position were more important then ever.
With that said, the racing was far from perfect; however, it was better than expected for a brand new racing surface. Gossage and his entire team should be proud of what we saw on Sunday and hopeful for what the facility’s remaining two race weekends will bring.
Jacques Debris? More like real debris this time around. The yellow flag flew four times for that reason Sunday, easily a season high but that was only part of the story. Several drivers reported all kinds of trash all over the racing surface throughout the race. And while closing up the field for debris is far from ideal, it’s a situation that realistically could not have been helped as high sustained winds (mostly 30+ mph) and gusts that were even higher plagued the entire weekend.
Chris Buescher’s jackman, Zack Young, had a scary moment on pit road when the No. 37 car was spun by contact from Erik Jones, upending Young in the process. A trip to the infield care center patched Young up, but he was out for the remainder of the race. The good news is that his injuries were relatively minor, a miracle considering the way he was knocked off his feet. Kudos to NASCAR for the safety rules that helped minimize potential injuries in these situations.
JJ Yeley and race winner Johnson were treated for dehydration in the infield care center after the race. Both drivers received IV fluids and reported feeling much better after being re-hydrated. In Johnson’s case, his fluid delivery system failed during the event, creating an uncomfortable environment inside the race car.
Nine drivers out of 40 failed to attempt a qualifying lap Friday afternoon when their teams couldn’t make it through NASCAR tech inspection in time. It’s easy to be frustrated with the new rules that force teams to run through the full process each time they fail an area. But all of the teams are well aware of the requirements for each race; it’s not NASCAR’s fault they’re pushing the envelope. We want teams to do all they can, attempting to gain a competitive edge, but they also have to face the consequences when pushing that line just a little too far. Don’t expect the sanctioning body to change its mind about the inspection process anytime soon, either. Teams had asked for a consistent method for quite some time before this rule was implemented.
Who Is Mad
Kyle Busch had a frustrating weekend that summed up the season for Joe Gibbs Racing to date. It started with a spin during Friday practice, one that forced repairs to the No. 18 Toyota ahead of Sunday’s race. But the handling difficulties for Busch and his team? Those were never fixed. He struggled with the new racing surface, didn’t get a firm grip on the track and never rose into contention. Combine that with a lengthy pair of pit stops, repairing in-race damage to the nose plus the right-rear quarterpanel and Easter Break couldn’t come soon enough. The fact Busch was the highest finishing JGR driver (15th) tells you all you need to know about their slump.
Blaney led a race-high 148 laps and looked like a lock to win before that pit road slide to infamy at Texas. And while he walked away OK, running 12th, he was still visibly disappointed. The fact it was the most laps led in a race for the Wood Brothers since 1982 didn’t matter. The reality of how quickly this sophomore is coming up to speed proved irrelevant. Blaney was frustrated, he thought that was the winning car and it showed.
Who Is Happy
Kevin Harvick might as well be upset since he was leading when the final caution flag flew, tightening up the field and handing Logano the lead with just over 30 laps remaining. But instead, the driver of the No. 4 Ford heads into Easter knowing his team executed properly. A fourth-place finish, while it could have been better comes without the silly mistakes that have watered down Harvick’s 2017 results.
It’s hard to believe a driver that finishes outside the top 20 could possibly crack a smile. However, Chris Buescher walks away from Texas knowing that his team is making strides in its mile-and-a-half program. Though the official race report will list him 21st, far from the front the No. 37 Ford was a top-10 car before fading late. Considering the jackman incident, a loose wheel, and poor track position throughout Buescher should walk away pleased with the way his team handled adversity.
- Johnson’s victory Sunday was his 81st career win at the Cup Series level. He’s just two behind Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list.
- Johnson now has a victory in 16 straight NASCAR Cup Series seasons. He’s won every year since moving up with the No. 48 full-time in 2002.
- Larson ran second Sunday for the fourth time in seven races. He had just six runner-up finishes for his entire career prior to 2017.
- Earnhardt ran fifth Sunday, easily his best run of 2017. It’s the latest in his Cup career he’s gone in a season before earning a top-10 finish or better.
- Sophomore Chase Elliott (ninth) has not finished lower than 14th all year.
- Denny Hamlin (25th) is without a top-five finish in the season’s first seven races.
In the Chase, NASCAR ends this first stretch of racing with six winners in seven Cup Series events. Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Larson, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., and now Johnson are on the win list thus far. All of them, barring unforeseen developments (injury, a record number of winners) have earned themselves a spot in NASCAR’s ten-race playoff already.
Among those on the outside looking in on the playoffs heading into Easter Break are Earnhardt, 2003 Cup champ Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon, and Kasey Kahne. Danica Patrick sits a disastrous 29th, over 60 points from a playoff spot as she continues to seek replacement sponsorship for her No. 10 Ford.
What Is In The Cooler
(Rating: one to six beers, where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)
Where You Point Your DV-R For Next Week
To the Easter Bunny! Next weekend marks NASCAR’s first one off since starting back up with February’s Daytona 500. The series needs some time before returning with a bang; they’re back Sunday, April 23 with a race down in Thunder Valley. Bristol Motor Speedway’s half-mile short track will start a four-month stretch of Cup racing that runs weekly through August 19.