NASCAR: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Source: Star Tribune

Going into Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Texas Motor Speedway, there were quite a few unknowns with the new repave and the fear that the racetrack would be single groove with very little passing. With the new surface only one race old with the Xfinity race on Saturday afternoon, Cup drivers knew they were in for a challenge.

NASCAR announced during the drivers’ meeting on Sunday morning that there would be a competition caution at Lap 35 for teams to look at their tyres since the ‘Tyre Monster’ put down rubber on Saturday night in hopes of widening out the groove.

The storyline of Sunday’s race was not only the new surface but the number of fast cars that would be starting in the rear, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, and Kasey Kahne.

Once the green flag flew for the start, these guys were on the move immediately, as all of them made their way into the top 20 by the competition caution on Lap 35.  Out front, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney would swap the lead back and forth until Blaney eventually led after the competition caution, holding on until the end of the stage to pick up his first stage of the season.

Stage 2 would provide us with very few cautions with surprisingly no incidents on track. Blaney battled Martin Truex Jr. hard at the beginning of the Stage but the #21 Wood Brothers Ford would prove to be too strong in the middle portion of the race.

When a caution flew with 6 to go in the Stage, strategy would become a factor as all but 7 cars would pit for fresh rubber and fuel. On the restart with 3 laps to go, Blaney would easily pull away, as he had all day long and go on to win his second Stage, becoming the third driver this season to win the first two Stages, the other two being Kevin Harvick at Atlanta and Martin Truex Jr. at Las Vegas.  However, once we entered the Stage break, strategy would play an even greater role.

Blaney and the others that didn’t pit at the end of Stage 2 had to come to pit road while all the other cars stayed out to get valuable track position.  This would shuffle Blaney all the way back to the 20th position and put Kevin Harvick at the front of the field.

Harvick and Brad Keselowski would have a close battle at the front for the next several laps, while the drivers that pit such as Blaney, Larson, Johnson, and Elliott all tried to make their way back to the front.

During the last round of green flag pit stops, Joey Logano attempted to go longer than anyone else and catch a caution to trap people a lap down.  That never happened for the Penske driver as he had to eventually pit after leading for 16 laps, handing the lead back to Harvick.

With only 30 laps to go, a debris caution would set up a shootout in the Lone Star State to see who would take home the win.  Logano stayed out while everyone else on the lead lap pit.  On the restart, the race was between Logano and Johnson and eventually, with only 18 laps to go, Johnson would take the lead and keep it to score his 7th win at the Texas Motor Speedway and his 1st win of 2017.

Kyle Larson would finish 2nd to retain the points lead after an eventful day, Logano would hold on for 3rd, Harvick finished 4th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would come home in 5th, scoring his first top 10 of the season. Stage 1 and 2 winner Ryan Blaney would never make it back to the front and finished 12th after leading a career high 148 laps.

This was a huge win for Jimmie Johnson as it put Hendrick Motorsports back in victory lane for the first time since Johnson captured his seventh title at Homestead at the end of 2016. It has been documented how uncharacteristic these struggles were for the team across the board, with Chase Elliott being the exception and the only Hendrick car in the top 10 in points.

On Sunday, 3 Hendrick cars finished inside the top 10, with the only one not doing so being Kasey Kahne who had mechanical issues late in the race, finishing 38th.  This should be the win that puts Hendrick back on the map, after much of the early part of the season has been dominated by the Ford teams.

The series now takes a week off, the next race being on April 23rd at the Bristol Motor Speedway where Kevin Harvick won last season.  We have seen some great races at Bristol, and this race should be no different with more fantastic short track action.