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JOHNSON WINS RECORD SEVENTH CUP RACE AT TMS
By John Sturbin
FORT WORTH, Texas (April 9, 2017) - Jimmie Johnson has returned to his NASCAR “wheelhouse,” otherwise known as Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway. And for the record, not all of Johnson’s 81 career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories have been scored in Fort Worth.
Mired in a mild slump through five races, Johnson jump-started season with a workmanlike victory in Sunday’s 21st annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Johnson, the seven-time defending series champion, notched his first win of the season, record seventh at Texas Motor Speedway and sixth in the last 10 Cup races hosted at the venue. And consider that he and crew chief Chad Knaus did so basically without benefit of those tried-and-true notes, as the 334-lap/501-mile event was run on TMS’ repaved and re-profiled 1.5-mile oval.
Johnson’s only top-10 performance prior to Sunday was ninth at Phoenix Raceway, opening himself and Knaus up to the critics.
“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m just real proud of this team. What a tough track and tough conditions. We were really in our wheelhouse and were able to execute all day.”
A fitness fanatic, Johnson had to catch his breath in Victory Lane after 3 hours, 24 minutes and 18-seconds of work in one hot office. Knaus confirmed the car’s fluid delivery system for Gatorade malfunctioned early.
“I got cooked in the car today,” said Johnson, who scored his 81st career win in his 550th Cup start. “I didn’t have any fluids so I’m not feeling the best, but we got into Victory Lane.”
Johnson was taken to the Wise Health System Infield Care Center and treated for dehydration after the Victory Lane ceremonies, delaying his post-race news conference. Johnson said he went there after his back and arms started cramping during subsequent interviews. He received three bags of IV fluids intravenously.
The win was Johnson’s first since clinching the 2016 Cup championship in the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. That title allowed Johnson to tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt on the all-time list with seven crowns each.
Johnson said he was not overly confident before the race that he would be a contender.
“I felt like we were in the zone with the car and making the car faster, but thought we’d be totally out of luck with track position,” Johnson said. “It was really treacherous out there, really slick, no second lane to work with. So I’m really surprised and impressed with the car we created to handle those conditions. I really thought that Ryan Blaney or Chase Elliott would get his first win today.”
Johnson took the lead on Lap 318 when he passed Joey Logano down the track’s frontstretch. Johnson’s margin of victory over Kyle Larson and his No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevy SS fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing was 0.340 of a second. Johnson, who qualified 24th after spinning out in Round 1 of time trials Friday and flat-spotting his tires, started from the back of the 40-car field after his crew later made an unapproved Goodyear tire change related to that incident.
In addition to a complete repave of the track and pit road, Turns 1 and 2 were re-profiled from 24 degrees to 20 degrees. Turn 1 also was widened by 20 feet from 60 to 80 feet. Turns 3 and 4 retained their 24-degree banking.
None of those changes mattered for Johnson & Co.
“I thought the repave might change it, but I still think I have the keys to the front door,” said Johnson, who led twice for a total of 18 laps.
“Jimmie was really good. Can’t ever count Jimmie Johnson out, he’s the best out there,” said Larson, who started 32nd and moved around Logano through Turn 2 on the penultimate lap. “I needed to get by Joey with probably five laps to go or so. Bummer that we didn’t get by Joey sooner, but we had to drive hard that last run to get to second. Proud of that.”
Johnson started the weekend 14th in points, 127 behind championship leader Larson. Johnson will head into the idle Easter Sunday weekend – and a family trip to Mexico in 11th – still 125 points behind Larson and eight in back of Kevin Harvick in 10th. Larson now has a 17-point lead over Elliott, who finished ninth in the No. 24 NAPA Chevy SS also fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.
Logano placed third in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion fielded by Team Penske, with polesitter Harvick fourth in the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing.
“That is Todd’s (Gordon) top-three there,” said Logano, referring to his crew chief’s pit stop strategy. “He did a good job giving us a shot to win. I tried to hold off the No. 48, he was just faster. There’s 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.
“My car started falling off like it did all day. I needed a 15-lap run instead of a 30-lap run, or a couple cautions in (Stage) 3 and we would be standing in Victory Lane with a 12th-place car and that would have been something. We just have to get faster. We weren’t fast and that’s why we didn’t win.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., of Hendrick Motorsports, also revived his mediocre season with a fifth-place run in the No. 88 Axalta Chevy SS.
“I figured we would get one (solid finish) sooner or later, but it’s nice,” Junior said. “I know our fans are really pulling for us. Could have finished a little better, but we’ll take the top five.”
Ryan Blaney finished 12th after leading four times for 148 laps in his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford. He won Stage 1 after 80 laps and Stage 2 after 170.
“Not a bad day for us, nice for us to win a couple segments,” said Blaney, whose car is fielded by legendary Wood Brothers Racing. “But I want to lead the last lap. That’s the lap I care about, but I thought we made a big gain today as a team. That was 20 points we gained and it’s really helpful. It means a lot. I definitely think this is a big confidence boost for everybody.”