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Johnson takes comeback victory on new Texas asphalt

Ryan Blaney was a dominant force for much of The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, but would not capitalize on his strong run. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

FORT WORTH, TX (Sunday, April 09, 2017) – – Ryan Blaney blasted to the lead in The 21st Annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway within the 30-lap mark. Blaney was a favorite to win following his strong performances on-track during Friday and Saturday test sessions. He would go on to lead 148 of the 334 laps that comprised the 500-mile distance.

Kevin Harvick would show some muscle, leading 77 laps. Martin Truex Jr led 49 laps. Joey Logano led 38. Brad Keselowski led four. Jimmie Johnson, whose fans had been vocal about dismal 2017 performance thus far, led 18 laps. Although Blaney led the completion of stages one and two, it was California’s Jimmie Johnson who led the final one and made the trip to Texas Motor Speedway victory lane.

Jimmie Johnson is now a seven time winner at Texas Motor Speedway. (Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Matching his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship count, Johnson nows holds seven victories in The Lone Star State.

Kyle Larson never controlled the race, but rallied with a late-race charge. He surged to the inside of second-place Joey Logano in the closing laps and significantly closed the distance back from the leader, but it was too little – too late. Johnson cruised to victory by three tenths of a second over Larson.

“I’m really surprised that we won here,” Johnson said of his seventh Texas triumph. “I feel like the – whenever there’s a repave -I think it doesn’t fit my style. I suffer more than anyone. I also feel like it kind of lends itself to the new guys coming in – the brave ones – the ones that haven’t hit many walls yet – and to go out and score one for the old guys today feels pretty good.”

Johnson addressed his dismal year-to-date, and today’s comeback, when questioned about pressure from disappointed fans.

Jimmie Johnson didn’t lead many laps at Texas, in respect to his competitors, but he lead the final laps. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“Just a great race car, and it was nice to really execute all day long. I think we’ve just been trying too hard. You know, we won the championship, obviously, last year, and feel like we have good cars and want to come out and be aggressive. To dial in right at 100 percent is just tough to do.”

Logano held onto third. Kevin Harvick ended the day in fourth. Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was noticeably fast in the last 30 laps, also ran out of time, but garnered a top five finish. Brad Keselowski was sixth, with Jamie McMurray seventh, Martin Truex Jr eight, Chase Elliott ninth and Kurt Busch in the final top-ten spot.

The field spread out in single-file formation almost immediately, until a second groove began to develop as the race wore on. The top eight finishers, plus Blaney, captured the spotlight throughout the day, proving to be the only Cup stars capable of getting a handle of the new asphalt surface at the Fort Worth 1.5-mile speedway. Each took turns chasing Blaney, until hard contact with Corey LaJoie near lap 300. Blaney was never a factor again. He blamed a mistake on pit road for turning his dominant run upside down.

Ryan Blaney cited a busy pit road and mistakes he made on it for ended up with a 12th place finish. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Once we got that caution before the second segment, a lot of guys pitted and there was a lot of mixed strategies, and we decided to try to win the segment, which I thought was important to get those points and an extra bonus point, and I thought we had enough of the race to go to try to work our way back up through there, and I think we got to eighth or something like that before the last caution, and I slid through our pit box, and that was an unfortunate deal,” Blaney commented. “We were kind of pinned in between [Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr] and there was a weird angle and I just stopped a little deep, and I hurt us on that one for sure. But we just weren’t able to pass anybody after that. No one really could do that. I would have liked to have seen it widen out a little bit more than it did today. I know if you tried to move up half a lane to a lane it wasn’t really good, but hopefully in time that gets better and better.”

Overall, the young driver of the Motorcraft Ford was pleased.
“Not a bad day for us. It’s nice to win a couple segments, 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.”

Joey Logano and Team Penske played pit strategy that began with the 22 car stretching green flag stops after lap 200. Beyond the laps 300 mark, green-flag pit stops brought the field down pit road again, minus Logano, who had worked himself onto a much later pit cycle. The strategy paid off early, as Kevin Harvick was the first off of pit road, but found himself second to Logano, who only had a dozen or so laps on his Good Year Eagles.

Johnson eventually worked his way into the lead with around 15 laps remaining. Except the failed effort by Larson, Johnson drove to the finish without a credible threat.

Jimmie Johnson was able to apply his first winner decal of 2017 before symptoms of dehydration sent him to the infield care center. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Johnson’s trophy didn’t come without sacrifice. Except a couple of small bottles of liquid handed to him during early pit stops, he was unable to rehydrate due to a failed in-car drinking system. Johnson did a quick interview in victory lane before symptoms of dehydration worsened significantly, forcing him to be transported to the infield care center for treatment.

“I don’t know exactly why it wasn’t working, but I have a button, and there’s an electric motor that pushes my Gatorade to a bite valve that I have in my helmet,” Johnson explained. “I pushed the button and nothing happened. I don’t know why or what failed, but it happened. I guess we had a caution – lap three or something – and I pointed out to my guys that my drink system wasn’t working, so I just didn’t have any fluids. Stage one and two, they handed me a small bottle of Gatorade, which I drank, but the 160 laps at the end or whatever it was, I just didn’t have any fluids at all in the car.
I knew I was warm, but I didn’t feel too bad. When I caught Joey and was racing with Joey, I started cramping pretty good on my left side, my chest and my biceps, my forearm, and I knew I was real low on fluids, and I got out of the car, and I was okay, certainly hot, but then again, when I started doing some other interviews in Victory Lane, big muscles started cramping, and I knew I needed to go get some IV then, some fluids.”

Johnson came into Texas race weekend eight points outside of the top ten. His No. 48 Chevrolet, along with the No. 42 of second-place Larson and the No. 78 of Truex, are headed to The NASCAR Research & Development Center for further inspection, before standings are officially updated.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes off for Easter weekend, with a return to action at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway for the running of The Food City 500 on Sunday, April 23.

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