FORT WORTH, Texas — In the end, it was the most familiar face of all that ended up conquering the new Texas Motor Speedway in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
That would be Jimmie Johnson, who passed Joey Logano for the lead with 17 laps to go and sailed away for the victory on a sunny day when winds were gusting up to 25 miles per hour, adding yet another element of uncertainty to a race that was full of mystery following a repave and reconfiguration of the 1.5-mile track.
Johnson handled it all like the seven-time Cup champion that he is, winning his first race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and his record seventh at TMS. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led only one other time for a single lap before those final 17 laps, but that was all that mattered.
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“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” said Johnson, who had only one top-10 finish this season coming in. “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.”
The system that delivers fluids to Johnson in his race car malfunctioned during the race, leaving the winning driver feeling poorly when he climbed out of it afterward. After a brief celebration in Victory Lane, he was taken to the infield care center for treatment.
Kyle Larson finished second for the fourth time this season, with Logano, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top five.
“I wish I could have gotten by Joey (for second) a couple of laps sooner, and then I think I could have had a shot at Jimmie at the end,” Larson said. “I was really, really good through (Turns) 3 and 4 there at the end, and thought I learned some things where I could pass some people coming off of (Turn) 2.”
There was early trouble for a handful of drivers, but nothing like what many had feared after several of NASCAR’s top wheelmen had encountered issues with the newly repaved, reconfigured track in the two days leading up to the event. That included Johnson, who had to start 24th Sunday after losing control of his car and going for a long slide in the first round of Friday qualifying.
Austin Dillon was the first to encounter a problem on Sunday, but it had nothing to do with the track. His No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet somehow suffered a broken tracking arm before the race even went green and had to go to the garage for repairs.
By the time Dillon returned, he was 12 laps down.
Shortly thereafter, on Lap 11, the cars of Jeffrey Earnhardt, Reed Sorenson and Gray Gaulding tangled coming out of reconfigured Turn 2, bringing out a caution.
But other than those two incidents, Stage 1 went off pretty cleanly. Ryan Blaney won it by four car lengths over Martin Truex Jr. – but the most entertaining racing was done by Larson, who started 32nd, motored up to 11th, then fell back to 30th when he was assessed a penalty for going through too many pit boxes on the way to his stall during a stop.
Larson raced his way back up to sixth by the end of Stage 1, then used a solid pit stop in between stages to move up to fourth for the restart that marked the beginning of Stage 2.
No one had anything for Blaney in the second 85-lap stage, however. He led 146 of the first 170 laps over the first two stages overall, taking the second incident-free segment as well.
It marked the first time a Wood Brothers Racing car had led 100 or more laps in Cup Series race since Neil Bonnett accomplished it at Rockingham in October of 1982.
But Sunday’s field took on a different look at the beginning of Stage 3, as 18 drivers who pitted toward the end of the second stage did not come in when Blaney, Larson and others did in between stages. That meant Larson had to start in 19th and Blaney in 20th as the third and final stage, constituted of 164 laps, commenced.
Johnson restarted the third stage in 22nd, but his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was fast, too. By the time he came in for a pit stop with 61 laps remaining in the race, he was all the way up to second – trailing only Martin Truex Jr., who also came in and gave up the lead in doing so.
By the time a caution came out for debris, setting up a restart with 33 to go, Johnson again was in second, this time behind Harvick.
Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team won the race off pit road, followed by Johnson, Truex, Larson and Earnhardt Jr. — all of whom took on two fresh Goodyear tires. Joey Logano did not pit and inherited the lead by staying out.
Although Logano did a masterful job of holding Johnson off for a total of 13 laps after the ensuing restart, it was only a matter of time until Johnson passed him on the fresher tires. He finally executed what turned out to be the winning pass with 17 to go.
Blaney restarted in 16th after overshooting his pit stall on the stop with 33 to go, taking him out of contention after he had dominated the first two stages. It was all he could do to drive back up to 12th by the end.
“That last pit stop was pretty discouraging. … We made our way up to seventh or eight and then pitted and I got into our box too long and we were wedged in between two cars,” said Blaney, who led a race-high and career-high total of 148 laps in all. “I was over the line by a few inches. That sucked. I put us in that hole.”