Texas Motor Speedway was the site of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. The track underwent a layout reconfiguration earlier in the year, though Jimmie Johnson proved he is still the top driver in Fort Worth as he won his seventh race at the track. Johnson had struggled throughout the start of the 2017 season, recording just one top-10 finish in the first six races, but the win secures a spot in the playoffs for the seven-time champion.
In January, Texas Motor Speedway announced plans to repave and redesign the track. The first two turns decreased in banking from 24° to 20°, while the track in that region was widened from 60 to 80 feet. Meanwhile, turns 3 and 4 remained at 24°. During Friday practice, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones and Chase Elliott suffered damage in various crashes or contacts with the wall, while Denny Hamlin spun. After he was required to visit the infield care center for such a minor incident, an exasperated Busch lied down on a Wise Medical System cart. In qualifying, nine drivers – Busch, Elliott, Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope – were unable to set a time after failing to pass pre-session inspection, forcing them to start from the rear.
Prior to the green flag, Austin Dillon had an inauspicious start to his day when he was forced to go to the garage for a broken track bar. As mechanical failure is not considered a reason for removing a driver from a race via the five-minute repair clock like with crash damage, he was not eliminated from race contention. He returned to the race on lap 12.
Kevin Harvick won the pole for the race and started alongside Ryan Blaney. After just four laps, the first caution came out for debris. Another green flag run started on lap five before ending on lap ten when Jeffrey Earnhardt collided with Reed Sorenson and Gray Gaulding, spinning him into the turn two wall.
A lap after the green flag came out on lap 16, Blaney took the lead. A scheduled competition caution occurred on lap 30 and Harvick reclaimed the lead on lap 36 until Blaney took it back shortly after. The Ohio native dominated the first stage, leading more laps in it than in his previous 60 Cup starts combined (33), en route to the stage win. Behind him were Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Larson, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Busch.
Truex won the race off pit road and led the field to the green on lap 93. However, Blaney passed him during the lap and continued his success. Another debris caution took place on lap 121 before the race resumed six laps later. The third yellow flag for debris came out on lap 163, when a part from Gaulding’s car (applied during repair efforts after his contact with Earnhardt earlier in the race) fell off. This set up a four-lap dash, though Blaney held off Johnson to win the stage. McMurray, Larson, Elliott, Kurt Busch, Harvick, Keselowski, Earnhardt Jr. and Truex followed.
During pit stops between stages, Blaney elected to pit while others stayed out, dropping him to 20th. On the lap 167 restart, Paul Menard started to fall and Blaney attempted to avoid him, making slight contact; Menard eventually went to the garage to change his battery. With Blaney out of the picture, Harvick became the leader, doing so until green flag pit stops began on lap 220. Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano led laps before they pitted; by the conclusion of the stops, Truex led the race. Another series of green flag stops took place with 60 to go, which allowed Johnson and Logano to be in 1st for a while, though Harvick remained the leader after stopping.
After restarting in 20th, Blaney began to climb back up the field and was in the top-10 on lap 279 when he nearly slammed into Corey LaJoie’s rear as he attempted to pass the #83. Annoyed, Blaney bumped into LaJoie’s left side while passing him. Kasey Kahne eventually dropped out of the race with a broken axle, though he returned after repairing it; he would finish 38th, last among cars still running.
The final caution came out on lap 299 for debris in turn three. Blaney drove over the boundaries of his pit box, slowing his crew’s progress and relegating him to 16th for the restart. Logano stayed out and was the leader as the green flag waved with 30 laps to go. He led the first 16 laps before Johnson passed him on lap 318; despite an attempted charge to regain ground, Logano was passed by Larson for 2nd as Johnson went on to win his 81st career Cup race and seventh at Texas. Larson finished in the runner-up position for the fourth time in 2017, followed by Logano and Harvick. Earnhardt Jr. recorded his first top-10 of the season as he finished 5th, while Keselowski, McMurray, Truex, Elliott and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-10.
“I guess I remembered how to drive and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” Johnson stated. “I’m just real proud of this team. What a tough track, tough conditions. But it’s really in our wheelhouse and we were just able to execute all day.”
Despite leading a race-high 148 laps, Blaney ended the day in 12th. He became the first Wood Brothers Racing driver to lead at least 100 laps since Neil Bonnett at Rockingham Speedway in 1982. “This is the most positive race we’ve had as a team,” he commented.
The Cup Series will take a week off for Easter before returning on April 23 for more short track racing with the Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @NASCAR