Right place, right time put Jimmie Johnson back in victory lane in his 550th Cup Series start
Drivers have an act for certain race tracks, for defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Texas Motor Speedway is one of his dominant tracks but he faced all kinds of adversity entering Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 in Fort Worth, Texas.
After scoring one top-10 in six races, Johnson was 14th in points and looked to turn his season around at the newly repaved 1.5-mile circuit.
It was also a milestone weekend for Johnson as he made his 550th Cup Series start but there was no celebration after Friday’s qualifying session.
Johnson lost control in turn one and flat spotted his tires, relegating Johnson from his 24th starting position to the rear of the field.
Johnson worked his way towards the front and as the race winded down, Johnson was racing with the leaders.
A debris caution on lap 301 gave Johnson an opportunity to pounce after pitting with the leaders.
Joey Logano, on different pit strategy, stayed out and led the field for the final restart. Johnson restarted third.
Logano retained the lead for 16 laps but Johnson’s fresh tires outshined Logano’s warn tires and took the lead on lap 318 and never looked back.
Johnson held off points leader Kyle Larson for his 81st Cup win and his 7th at Texas.
In a radio interview, Johnson said it was tough race after battling the new track surface.
“I was trying to manage the slick surface that we had on the track and the lack of grip that was out there but our car was super-fast,” Johnson said. “The end of the second stage played a weird game on us with guys pitting and off pitting and I still drove up through there and passed those cars and won this thing.”
In a television interview, Johnson said the car was in good shape after the first couple of runs.
“It was so tough those first 20-30 laps in traffic,” Johnson said. “The air was air turbulent and the track wasn’t very clean. Just the way it finished, I think we can start racing with what I can show. It’ll take some time for the track to age, nothing out of the ordinary but it was an awesome day for the Lowe’s team.”
It wasn’t Johnson’s first rodeo from going worst to first as Johnson also started from the rear when he last won a Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20, 2016.
Johnson gained three spots in the points standings and is now 11th.
The story of the first two stages was Wood Brothers Racing sophomore driver Ryan Blaney who led a race-high 148 laps and won both stages.
Blaney became the first Wood Brothers driver to lead over 100 laps since Neil Bonnett at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina Oct. 31, 1982. Bonnett finished third.
Like Bonnett at Rockingham, Blaney came up short of going to victory lane after struggling to find clean air in stage three.
Blaney’s day changed after a debris caution came out with five laps remaining in stage two.
Most of the field pitted while Blaney stayed out to keep his stage win hopes alive.
Blaney held off Johnson to win stage two but pitted shortly thereafter.
During the final pit stop, Blaney overshot his pit box and eliminated his chances of a maiden win in the Cup Series. Blaney finished 12th.
Blaney said his last pit stop was discouraging and questioned the stage two pit strategy.
“When they threw the debris caution at the end of stage two, it made everyone have split strategies,” Blaney said. “We got in the back (of the field) and couldn’t pass anyone. It was terrible to pass people. We made it up to seventh or eighth and got into our box a bit too long and kind of wedged between two cars. I was over by a few inches and that sucked. I should’ve stayed out looking back.”
Blaney added his late-race battle with Larson, Brad Keselowski and Corey LaJoie damaged the right side of his car.
Blaney said the damage occured when he hit the lapped car of LaJoie entering turn four.
“Kyle and Brad were jumbled up in one and two when I had a run and got inside of Brad,” Blaney said. “I guess Corey was coming off pit road and didn’t know we were all racing the hell out of each other. I kind of cleared Brad and almost went to the outside of LaJoie and I guess he got loose and slid right in front of me. I ran into the back of him and it lost us a bunch of time and spots. That was a bad situation and timing wasn’t good.”
Despite a disappointing result, Blaney said his performance was an indication of the progress Wood Brothers has made to become weekly contenders this season.
“It says a lot about this team of how good of a car we had Sunday,” Blaney said. “If you would’ve asked me Saturday how we’re going to run, I wouldn’t have said we would win two stages and have one of the fastest cars. They made really good changes Sunday morning and excited to get to Bristol and see what we can do.”
Blaney moved from seventh to sixth in points, 91 markers behind Larson and 73 ahead of 16th place driver Denny Hamlin.
Larson, with his fourth second place effort of 2017, said he had a better car than most of his competitors.
“It made the race fun for me,” Larson said. “I could pass people through traffic but I wished I could’ve gotten by Joey a couple of laps sooner. I think I might’ve had a shot at Jimmie, I was good through three and four at the end. I actually learned some things there to pass people off turn two.”
Larson said had he not clipped too many pit boxes at the end of stage one, the outcome would’ve been different.
“We could’ve controlled the race,” Larson said. “My car was working good at the beginning part of the race. I’m disappointed at myself for that and had a little brain fart and clipped to many pit boxes. All and all a good day, another second place for us and extended our points lead so a solid effort.”
Larson now has a 17-point lead over Chase Elliott who finished ninth.
The Cup Series have their first of two bye weeks April 16 and will resume action at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee April 23.
Retired driver Carl Edwards is the defending spring winner. Kevin Harvick won the most recent race at Bristol Aug. 21, 2016.