Monday afternoon NASCAR races are a rarity, but the No. 48 in victory lane is the norm.
That’s precisely what occurred at Bristol Motor Speedway after Mother Nature forced the postponement of the Food City 500 from Sunday to Monday afternoon. NASCAR called the race around noon on Sunday, giving teams, drivers and fans ample time to make contingency plans. Thankfully, the racing didn’t disappoint and a familiar face ended up in the winner’s circle.
HE’S ALRIGHT, FOLKS
Remember when everybody, myself included, was questioning Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team? Would they be able to win, was their dynasty over? Looking back on it, how dumb can we be?
Of course, Johnson and company would get it figured out. He led 81 of 500 laps on Monday on his way to victory, his second at the 0.533-mile bullring, his 82nd of his illustrious career and second in a row dating back to two weekends ago at Texas Motor Speedway.
But Johnson said the work of crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team throughout the weekend was what ultimately made the difference in the final 100 laps at Bristol.
“I wasn’t as good on the top […] the bottom was really where it was at on the short run,” Johnson told FOX post-race. “This No. 48 was flying today […] this track has been difficult over the years but we really hit on something Saturday afternoon in that last practice session. Honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for here for the past 16 years and we finally found it.”
The win puts Johnson seventh on the all-time wins list in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition. He’s now one victory behind Cale Yarborough (83), and two behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (84). All three drivers have been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“That’s just mind-blowing,” Johnson told reporters post-race. “I wouldn’t be here without Mr. [Rick] Hendrick’s support. Thanks to him and to Jeff Gordon for believing in me. For Hendrick Motorsports to make this job kind of a family environment for all of us to thrive in has been a perfect environment for me and Chad Knaus, and for the consistent group of guys behind me through all these years has led to the environment to win 82 races, or whatever it is, which is just insane. I’m truly humbled.”
With two wins already this season, 85 is a definite possibility for the season. Do the math: if Johnson wins five races per year (counting 2017) for four more seasons, you could be looking at 100 wins for seven-time.
BOWYER GETTING CLOSE
Clint Bowyer came home in second place in his No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. After a pit road speeding penalty on lap 326, he methodically worked his way back inside the top 10. With less than 40 laps to go, he restarted ninth and was quickly in the top five.
Hugging the bottom lane, he inched up to second place, securing his best result for SHR since joining the organization at the start of the season. Last season for HScott Motorsports, he recorded three top 10 finishes. This season, he has four top 10 finishes and two top fives.
“You try everything you possibly can [to get by Johnson] and I was starting to do some pretty desperate things with brakes and my line and stuff like that,” Bowyer told reporters post-race. “And then you just realize—your mindset quickly changes, and you’re like, ‘alright, let’s put it in perspective here; we’ve come a long way, it was a long day, and second place is probably a good run for us, and we should be happy with that.’”
Kevin Harvick came home third after staying out under the final caution with less than 40 laps to go. He couldn’t hold off Johnson and Bowyer on four fresh tires, but was able to keep Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson (led a race-high 202 laps and won stage one) and bay. Those three drivers took the checkered flag in fourth, fifth and sixth position, respectively.
Chase Elliott finished seventh and Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth. The No. 78 had a pit road speeding penalty on lap 465 after leading 116 laps, which put him back in the field. He was never able to fully recover, and had to settle for a solid top 10 finish.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top ten, with Trevor Bayne, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Ty Dillon coming home just outside the top ten.
BIG NAMES FALL FLAT
The Busch Brothers have 10 wins at Bristol combined, but had afternoons to forget. Kyle Busch had two tire failures within 200 laps of each other and finished 35th. Kurt Busch got loose off turn two within the first 100 laps, hit the inside wall and was forced to repair his beaten and battered No. 41 Ford. Busch ultimately came home in 25th place, six laps down.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s day ended prematurely as an internal engine problem which caused oil to soak the right front tire, ending up in the No. 88 hitting the wall. Earnhardt Jr. finished 38th.
Danica Patrick was involved in a wreck with David Ragan, and she came home 36th. Brad Keselowski finished 34th for Team Penske in his No. 2 Ford due to extensive handling issues as well as steering problems and Ryan Blaney finished 33rd due to a power-steering issue.
Erik Jones came home 17th after damage from an incident with AJ Allmendinger forced the No. 77 to be repaired. He was in the top 10 for most of the race and was having a career day.
When Bristol Motor Speedway announced they were putting VHT, the sticky substance to create traction, on the bottom groove for this weekend’s races like they did last year, most fans were excited.
But as the rain continued to fall, laps continued to circulate around BMS, the VHT began to wear off. Monday morning, BMS officials applied more VHT to the bottom groove, and it was the place to be if you wanted to make any attempt at passing another car on Monday.
But only for the first 300 laps, or so. The VHT began to wear off again, and the top lane and the “old” Bristol (before the “old old” Bristol) began to work itself back in. Kyle Larson repeatedly got monster runs on the high side, and others followed the No. 42 up top as well.
But the bottom lane still retained most of the grip that it originally had. This created a perfect recipe for some great racing, some that had never been seen before at Bristol. Typically a one-lane track (either up high or down low), side-by-side racing was a regularity.
And it was AWESOME.
Drivers loved it and so did the fans. If NASCAR and Bristol are smart, they’ll do whatever they did this weekend every time cars race on the concrete surface. 15-second laps can go quick at BMS, but a race like this (and more of them) will be remembered for a lifetime.
NEW ALPHA DOGS AT TOYOTA?
Joe Gibbs Racing has not been up to par so far this season. Eight races in and zero wins is unacceptable by JGR standards. Although Kenseth came home fourth on Monday, Hamlin was 10th, Daniel Suarez 19th Kyle Busch’s tire troubles put him in 35th when the race concluded.
We’re accustomed to JGR putting all four of their cars inside the top ten with multiple in the top five and one in victory lane on a weekly basis. But that hasn’t happened so far this season. And from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be happening anytime soon.
Has Furniture Row Racing surpassed JGR in the Toyota hierarchy? Maybe. Just maybe. Truex Jr. ran inside the top five for most of the afternoon, leads the MENCS in stage points and has one win. Jones has been the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year and was contending for his first win before the incident with Allmendinger took him out of contention for the victory.
I know it’s still early, but as we inch up on the one-third mark of the 2017 season, it’s worth pondering: has JGR reached its ceiling? Or is this just a blank page before a new chapter?
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (and XFINITY Series) heads north to Virginia and Richmond International Raceway for the Toyota Owners 400. Carl Edwards moved JGR-teammate Kyle Busch out of the way to win for the second week in a row last year. Johnson will look to win his third race in a row, and his second in as many weeks.