Jimmie Johnson entered this season with all of the momentum from his seventh Monster Energy Cup title in 2016, but since the green flag dropped at Daytona to begin the season, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has struggled. Through the first six races of the season, he had only posted one top-10 finish, but he had to be excited about turning things around when he arrived at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday for the running of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Johnson entered the weekend as the most successful driver at Texas as he had already made six trips to the track’s victory lane in his career. Those wins all came on the “old” Texas track as Sunday’s race was the first to be held on the newly repaved and reconfigured layout. All the notes and data that Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus had compiled over their 17 years together offered no help to the duo as every team that showed up to qualify on Friday had yet to turn a lap on the new surface.
The weekend did not get off to the kind of start that Johnson had envisioned as he spun his Chevrolet in first-round qualifying, which flat-spotted his tires. Knaus had no choice but to put on new tires and even though he did qualify 24th, NASCAR rules mandate that if you change tires during qualifying you have to start the race from the rear of the field.
Once the race started it became evident very quickly that while he may have had to start the race at the back of the field, he did have a car that looked like it might have a chance to be in the hunt during the final stage of the race. He moved into the top 10 for the first time when the caution flag waved for the fifth time on lap 121. By the time stage two ended on lap 170, he had moved into second place. It wasn’t until lap 318 that he took the lead for good, and once in clean air he never looked back as he notched the 81st win of his career.
The win also was the first for Hendrick Motorsports this season as the four-car operation had struggled to begin the year. Chase Elliott was the only one of its four drivers to be in the top 10 in points going into Texas and it had yet to win a race this season. It had been since 1994 that Hendrick had not posted a win during the first six races of the season, but that streak is over and now Hendrick and Johnson with his Texas win are guaranteed the opportunity to run for their record-breaking eighth series title.
The win also moved Johnson into 11th place in the points and, maybe even more important, the win also gives him five playoff points that carry over throughout the Chase until the final race at Homestead-Miami. Elliott leads all Hendrick drivers in the standings in second place where he trails the series leader Kyle Larson by 17 points. Kasey Kahne is 17th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounds out the Hendrick drivers in 20th.
PIT NOTES: Las Vegas Motor Speedway has already announced that it would be adding a second race next season, but one change that will not happen to the 2018 schedule will be a points race being changed to a mid-week date. The change has been talked about for several seasons as a way to avoid weekends when there could already be several major sporting events taking place. Any move of a race to a mid-week slot would require more work on the track and media as they would have to work out a complete new set of logistics. While there may be no points race making the move to mid-week for next season, apparently the door has not been shut on the moving of the All-Star race to the middle of the week. That non-points race has also been rumored to be moving from its longtime home at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Event: Food City 500
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway
(.533-mile concrete oval, 24o-30o of
banking in the turns)
Date: April 23, 2 p.m.
Defending Race Winner: Carl