Pro tip: never doubt a seven-time champion, future first ballot Hall of Famer, 80-time Cup winner and his team. They’ll make you look stupid in a hurry.
That’s what Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team did this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, as they won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 and dispelled any doubts surrounding their championship team.
Just when the mainstream media and fans started to question if the No. 48 had lost a step, Johnson’s team got the last laugh in victory lane with a trophy by their sides.
LUCKY NUMBER SEVEN
The win was Johnson’s seventh at the 1.5-mile intermediate track. Despite the repave and reconfiguration, it seemed to be the same old Texas for Johnson and company. He only led a total of 18 laps in the 334-lap event and passed eventual third-place finisher Joey Logano on lap 318, who stayed out on nine-lap older tires.
“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it! ” Johnson told FOX sarcastically in victory lane. “I’m just real proud of this team. What a tough track and tough conditions. We were really in our wheelhouse and we were just able to execute all day.”
After starting the race in the rear due to changing his tires after qualifying (he flat spotted them after spinning out), he was inside the top 10 by the mid-point of stage two and finished that same stage in second place. The last time they started in the rear? It worked out pretty well for ‘em. When their backs are against the wall, they perform. Every time.
FITNESS FREAK FATIGUED
Johnson was noticeably different upon exiting his car in victory lane. He is known for being a gym rat and an avid bike-rider. Dale Earnhardt Jr., his HMS teammate, commented that Johnson did multiple 100-mile rides throughout the weekend, and regularly does. But the driver of the No. 48 looked beat, something we haven’t seen from him in his 15 years.
“I got cooked in the car today,” Johnson explained. “I didn’t have any fluids, so I’m not feeling the best […] I’m so proud of the fight in this race team. I can’t wait to celebrate during this off-weekend with my family and friends and really enjoy this.”
Johnson checked himself into the infield care center after a few post-race interviews. He complained about cramping, overheating and dehydration, so he got some IV’s to replenish his fluids.
“I knew I was warm, but I didn’t feel too bad,” Johnson told reporters after receiving medical treatment. “When I caught Joey (Logano) and was racing with him, I started cramping pretty good on my left side, my chest and my biceps, my forearm, and I knew I was real low on fluids. And I got out of the car, and I was OK, certainly hot, but then again, when I started doing some other interviews in Victory Lane, big muscles started cramping, and I knew I needed to go get some IV then, some fluids.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus commended his driver for his efforts inside the race car despite the cooling system and lack of fluids for all 500 miles.
“He was hot after the race,” Knaus said. “He’s a pretty tidy, lean, neat guy, and when things get hot, he can get hot pretty quick, but we got him cooled off and he’s looking good. He’s ready to go have a weekend off like the rest of us.”
He added that he “doesn’t know” what malfunctioned, but he’s sure they’ll figure it out in time for the next event.
You still think these drivers aren’t athletes?
Kyle Larson, who also started in the rear of the field, came home in second place, the fourth time in seven races he has finished as the runner-up. He also had to overcome a pit road penalty for driving through too many pit boxes after the first round of pit stops. If he could’ve gotten by Logano a couple laps sooner, he might have challenged Johnson for the win.
Logano came home third with pole sitter Kevin Harvick (led 77 laps) fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fifth for his first top 10 of the season and first since June 2016.
Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. (led 49 laps), Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10. Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney (won stages one and two), Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished just outside the top 10.
Some other notable finishers include Kyle Busch in 15th, Matt Kenseth in 16th, Daniel Suarez in 19th, Erik Jones in 22nd, Denny Hamlin in 25th and Austin Dillon in 33rd. The No. 3 went behind the wall before the race began due to a broken truck arm mount and finished 12 laps down.
BLANEY’S DOMINANCE GOES UNREWARDED
Ryan Blaney looked as if he would be en route to his first career win. The second-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver started the race in second place and led a race-high 148 laps on Sunday. He won stages one and two with relative ease, and it seemed as if the No. 21 from Wood Brothers Racing was headed back to victory lane.
But the racing gods had other plans. Ultimately, it was strategy that cost him a shot at the win. On lap 163, Gray Gaulding brought out the weekly BK Racing caution (cue laugh track here). Crew chief Jeremy Bullins kept the No. 21 on track instead of calling his driver to pit road. They won the stage but pitted under the stage yellow and ended up restarting in 20th. They were never able to work their way back into contention and ultimately finished 12th.
“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney told reporters post-race. “Now I say we should have stayed out the last caution (at the end of the race) and might have had a better shot at it. But you can’t really change any of that now. Yeah, in hindsight […] that was kind of a judgment call.”
Blaney also slid through his pit box on the final stop, costing a handful of spots. He furthermore had an on-track incident with the No. 83 of Corey LaJoie. LaJoie got loose right in front of Blaney, slowing his momentum considerably. Blaney was not pleased with the No. 83 and ended up door-slamming him on the front stretch.
SURPRISINGLY GOOD RACING
Coming into the race, many (myself included) were skeptical of TMS’ racing being compelling. With a repave comes a one-groove racetrack. But track president Eddie Gossage worked with NASCAR and Goodyear to put down as much rubber down in the second groove as possible (they had the tire monster dragging rubber for 14 hours overnight), and it worked.
“The track was a little bit better than I think I expected it to be,” second-place finisher and persistent high-lane lover Larson said. “I thought it would be a little bit harder pass. Maybe it was, but our car was really good, so it could operate on the bottom of (Turns) 1 and 2 really good, and that was about the only place you could pass was the exit of 2, so our car was thankfully working good over there.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO JGR?
All four Joe Gibbs Racing cars ended up with finishes outside of the top 10. Finishes of 15th, 16th, 19th and 25th weren’t what the Toyota team was looking for. That’s for sure.
After all, Kyle Busch was the defending winner of this race and JGR hadn’t been that off the pace to start 2017. But when you look at their 2016 numbers (won half of the regular season races) compared to this season, there might be a little cause for concern.
“We were a 20th-place car at best today,” Hamlin told Jeff Gluck post-race. “I didn’t think any of us (at JGR) were very good […] we’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”
An adjustment to the new 2018 Camry body was expected to hinder JGR’s performance a tad to start the season—but not to this extent. Plus, Furniture Row Racing–with the No. 78 of Truex Jr. and No. 77 and Rookie of the Year contender Jones–are doing just fine. It’s early, I get it. But if they don’t grab a checkered flag in the next month, it might be time to hit the panic button.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as well as XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, are all off next weekend. Drivers and teams will spend their Easter weekends home with their families for one of the two off weekends throughout the entirety of the 2017 MENCS season.
In two weeks’ time, Bristol Motor Speedway will play host to the Food City 500. Kevin Harvick is the defending winner of the race. The NXS will also be in action.