By Kent Whitaker
The big story heading into the Texas Motor Speedway race weekend was how the drivers would adjust to the reconfigured and repaved track surface. It seems that at least two drivers loved it! The beginning of the race featured a young gun as the most dominating wheelman in the field. But, it was a veteran who walked away with the checkered flag.
Ryan Blaney, driver of the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, started on the outside Sunday during the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 but quickly took the lead within fifteen laps. In fact, it was a Ford packed front with Kevin Harvick on the pole, Blaney in the second spot with Ford drivers, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top five.
In qualifying, Blaney thought he had captured the pole with his lap times. The young Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver was excited about the prospects of taking home one of Texas’ signature trophies.
“Man, I heard that they give you a shotgun when you win the pole here,” Blaney said after race qualifying. “I saw my lap and thought that might do it but Kevin (Harvick) just snuck by us.”
Jimmie Johnson Championship Reminder
Seven time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson reminded race fans that there is a reason that he’s captured the title so many times. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, led only one lap during the entire race heading into the final minutes.
After a restart, Joey Logano took the lead and it looked as if he would sail away for the win. Johnson inched closer with every lap and finally overtook Logano with seventeen laps remaining. Johnson pulled away and never has a serious challenge. It was Johnsons first win of the 2017 season.
Johnson seemed to make it an easy win during the closing laps but it was anything but. The system that is designed to deliver fluids to drivers during a race malfunctioned in Johnson’s race car. The heat and lack of fluids took its toll during the race. Johnson celebrated briefly following the win and was then ushered to the infield care center.
“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” said Johnson, after he climbed from the car before being checked in the infield care center. “I’m just real proud of this team. What a tough track, tough conditions (at Texas Motor Speedway). But it’s really in our wheelhouse and we were just able to execute all day.”
Johnson started the season with a disappointing run in the Daytona 500. He left that race early due to a wreck. Heading into the Texas race weekend Johnson had only finished in the top-ten once. The win at Texas was a record setting seventh win for Johnson at the track.
Blaney Brings Wood Brothers Back to the Front
Ryan Blaney defiantly started the weekend strong at Texas. The team started off fast in practice and got better heading into qualifying. After starting on the outside of Kevin Harvick it was clear that Blaney would be one of the cars to beat.
Blaney won the first two stages and lead 148 laps. The added points, combined with his finish, helped move him into 6th place in Cup Series Point Standings. The 148 laps led was the most of any driver on Sunday.
The dominating performance by Blaney marked the first time that a Wood Brothers car ran such a powerful race since 1982. That was the year that Neil Bonnett, driving for Wood Brothers at the time, accomplished the feat during the October race at Rockingham.
In the end, it was not an on-track problem that moved Blaney back to eventually ending 12th. Heading into the third stage several drivers including Blaney and Kyle Larson came in for pit stops. Other drivers stayed out. That moved Larson to 19th and Blaney in 20th position during the third stage.
Later in the race Blaney overshot his pit stall. The mistake placed him in the 16th spot for the final thirty-plus laps. He fought back to finish just outside of the top-ten.
“That last pit stop was pretty discouraging,” said Blaney following the race. “We made our way up to seventh or eighth and then pitted and I got into our box too long and we were wedged in between two cars, I was over the line by a few inches. That sucked. I put us in that hole.”
Rounding out the Top Five
Ryan Blaney put one a racing clinic for two segments before the veteran Jimmie Johnson pulled away from the field at the end. The Texas race highlighted those two drivers but it’s worth noting the rest of the top-five.
Kyle Larson finished second for the fourth time this season. He’s also won a race in 2017. The finish helps Larson keep a grip on the top of the points standings.
Joey Logano finished third at Texas. He remains in the fifth spot on the Cup Series leader board.
Kevin Harvick drove to a fourth-place finish. The effort keeps Harvick within shouting distance of the top of the leaderboard in tenth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr came back with a vengeance at Texas. The driver has had a rough 2017 season starting with a DNF at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished fifth at Texas moving him into the top-twenty.
Speaking of tailgate food! Texas is known for barbecue and grilling! The state is also very well known for chili – which happens to be an official state food. But, the Lone Star state is also a major player when it comes to seafood. Here’s a piece of trivia for you if you occasionally enjoy grilled blackened grouper. In 2003, Tim Oestreich caught a Black Grouper that weighed in at an amazing 124 pounds off the Texas Coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kent Whitaker, often called 'the Deck Chef,' is a sportswriter, culinary writer, and cookbook author with fourteen titles. He covers NASCAR, racing in general, Football, barbecue, grilling, and tailgating. You can visit him on www.thedeckchef.com."