Jimmie Johnson returns to form with win in wild Texas race

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 09: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

It may have been a new track surface, but it was the same old Jimmie Johnson. Johnson took the lead for the final time with 16 laps to go Sunday to complete a charge from the back of the field to the front to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway; his first win since Homestead last season.

“I guess I remembered how to drive; and I guess this team remembered how to do it!” Johnson said.  “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 spinning during practice Friday, then sitting out qualifying, Johnson started from the rear Sunday.  It took nearly the entire 500 miles but Johnson was able to fight his way to the front, pass Joey Logano and score his seventh Texas win and the 81st of his career.

“It was just a really tough day,” Johnson said.  “A lot of just trying to manage the slick surface that we had on the track and the lack of grip that was out there, but kind of once we got about the third run things really started coming together and our car was super-fast.  The end of the second stage kind of played a weird game on us with guys pitting and not pitting.  And I still drove up through there, passed all those cars and won this thing. “

Kyle Larson, who like Johnson, had also started from the rear of the field, fought his way to second after being penalized for going through too many pit stalls early in the race. He passed Logano with 2 laps to go but ran out of time and had to settle for second.

“It feels really good,” Larson said. “Was able to pass a lot of cars there in the beginning.  Got a pit road penalty.  I clipped too many boxes there and then came from the back and passed a lot of cars again.  Just felt like we passed cars a lot.  All-in-all a good day.  You never know… I felt like maybe if I didn’t have that pit road penalty early in the race I could have gotten to the lead that run with how good we were and maybe controlled the race from there.  Just a little mistake on my part and we’ve got to clean that up a little bit and maybe we will win some more of these.”

Logano had grabbed the lead thanks to an off-sequence pit stop that gave him the lead thanks to a timely caution on lap 299, 10 laps after he had surrendered the lead under green.

“That is Todd’s (Gordon) top-three there,” Logan said of his crew chief. “He did a good job giving us a shot to win. I tried to hold of the 48, he was just faster. There is nothing to say besides that. I was in the clean and had the clean air and he was still faster behind me. Once he passed me, my car kind of came to me a little bit and I was able to run him back down a little bit. If he had made a mistake I was going to be there. He was loose, I could tell, then all of a sudden he wasn’t loose anymore. He must have lowered his track bar or something and he drove away again.”

Kevin Harvick, who won the pole on Friday, led 77 laps Sunday and came home fourth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth.

For much of the day it was Ryan Blaney’s race. He led a race high 148 laps and looked unbeatable.  He was buried deep in the field after winning the second stage and pitting, while a group of cars who had just pitted stayed out.  Unlike Johnson and Larson who were with him however, Larson was not able to make up as many spots. A miscue on a pit stop with 33 laps to go put him outside the top 10. He finished 12th.

“That last pit stop was pretty discouraging,” Blaney said. “We got back in that third debris caution. I don’t know what it was there at the end of segment two and that made everybody have split strategies and we got in the back and couldn’t pass anybody. It was terrible to try to pass people. We made our way up to seventh or eighth and then pitted and I got into our box too long and we were wedged in between two cars. I was over the line by a few inches. That sucked. I put us in that hole. We probably should have stayed out looking back on it but that is easy to do.”

There was a great deal of passing for most of the day especially behind the leaders.  The new surface and the reconfigured turns 1 and 2 at Texas gave drivers fits all weekend, but Sunday the racing line that had been very narrow at the start of the weekend widened. The only serious crash happed on lap 11 when Jeffery Earnhardt spun in turn 2; Reed Sorenson and Gray Gaulding got together directly behind.  Sorenson and Gaulding were able to finish the race. Earnhardt and one other driver, Timmy Hill were the only two drivers who failed to finish. Hill with engine issues.

Brad Keselowski was sixth, Jamie McMurray seventh, Martin Truex Jr. who led 49 laps was eighth with Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch rounding out the top 10.

At the end of the day, despite the repave and reconfiguration of turns 1 and 2, Johnson, the all-time leading winner at Texas, was in a familiar place, victory lane.

“I thought the repave might change it,” Johnson said smiling. “But I still think I have the keys to the front door.”

NASCAR is off next weekend. The Cup series returns at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500 on April 23.

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