Johnson leads Bow Tie Brigade to take Texas
This round of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Texas Motor Speedway did not produce a big brawl, like last fall's race did between Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon and their crews. But the Duck Commander 500 did pitch to Chevy drivers against each other in what could be a preview of the showdown for the championship in the November Chase race. Jimmie Johnson claimed his second win of the 2015 campaign, going from 4th to 1st in the final 21 laps.
Johnson and Harvick (2nd) easily had the two best cars of the night and really only relinquished the lead to cars that were on different pit strategies. Kurt Busch (14th) started on the pole. but Harvick led the first 33 laps, until Alex Kennedy (37th) spun to bring out the night's first caution flag.
Johnson took the lead for the first time on lap 109 after pit stops under yellow. And from then on he and Harvick showed strong Hendrick horsepower at the front of the field. Jamie McMurray (6th) twice took two tires in the race to gain the lead, but couldn't stave off faster cars on newer rubber. Joey Logano (4th) used the same strategy and led 19 laps late in the going. But Harvick caught him and then gave him a shove late in the race, when Logano tried to throw a block on last year's champ on the final restart. Logano got moved to the high groove, but stayed off the wall and made up several spots to score his fourth top 5 and seventh top 10 in the seven races this season.
Johnson lost some ground after some contact with Denny Hamlin (11th) in the laps just after a lap 270 restart. But Johnson gained spots and got back near the front before the final yellow of the night. On the last restart, Johnson made a power move around Harvick and set sail to catch McMurray in the lead. Harvick tried desperately to catch him again, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd) battled him hard for the spot. Harvick scraped the wall driving his car so hard to try and catch Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. get by him for 2nd. But Harvick gathered the car and barely beat Earnhardt Jr. to the checkered flag, scoring yet another top 2 finish.
Eight cautions slowed the race, including two mid-race debris cautions. There were mostly long green flag runs and a fairly low attrition rate. But three tire mishaps and crashes late in the race, a half-spin by Matt Kenseth (23rd), and another debris-inspired yellow all slowed the action five times in the final 105 laps. This allowed for plenty of drivers to take wave-arounds, free passes, and other chances to catch up. 26 cars to finish on the lead lap.
The racing action at Texas proved, at times, to be exciting. The spread out nature of 1.5-mile tracks allowed the great to pull way ahead and expose fully the weaknesses of the teams that have been struggling this season. One thing this Texas race also showed is that all of Hendrick Motorsports, namely Johnson, can run with dominant Harvick. Only Jeff Gordon (7th) struggled out of the Hendrick camp, but even he had a top 10 car much of the night Saturday.
The top 10 were Johnson, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Brad Keselowski (recovered from unscheduled pit stop and pit road penalty), McMurray (benefited twice from two-tire pit strategy), Gordon, Kasey Kahne (also recovered from unscheduled pit stop to run strong), Martin Truex Jr. (keeps his top 10 streak live), and Carl Edwards (first top 10 driving for Joe Gibbs Racing).
The top 20 in points are all relatively close contention to being in the Chase (16 make it). Kurt Busch at 21st in points 17 points behind A.J. Allmendinger in 20th and 33 behind 16th Paul Menard. Tony Stewart is 32nd in points, 70 behind Allmendinger in 16th.
RaceTweet: Johnson and Harvick spar and "Six TIme" ends up on top at Texas.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kemmie Harvson - Yeah, okay, that's lame. But Harvick and Johnson owned the night, leading a combined 224 of the 334 laps. Johnson gets the edge by winning the race, leading 128 laps (the most), and having tremendous restarts all night.
North Korean Missile Dud: Kyle Larson - After missing Martinsville two weeks ago, while in the hospital after fainting the day before, Larson was anxious to get back on the track started the race in 9th. Almost every race begins with the question, "Can he win one?" Larson ran from 8th to 12th much of the race and got shuffled back to 25th in the end. He sits 26th in points. The Ganassi Racing fleet hasn't been very impressive this season, but Larson hasn't elevated his cars past their expected finishing spot either.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Brad Keselowski - An unscheduled pit stop should have doomed the No. 2 team, but the race stayed green long enough for others to pit and the caution came out before Keselowski had to pit again. Then Keselowski faked onto pit road and then off, but didn't get back on the track before taking out the commitment cone. That sent Keselowski to the back of the pack, but he drove back to the top 5. That's no easy feat.
Ghost Driver: Brett Moffitt - The No. 55 team has had a tumultuous season with Moffitt substituting for Brian Vickers in all but three races. Moffitt scored an upset top 10 at tricky Atlanta Motor Speedway. That wasn't to be at similar Texas, where Moffitt and the team found themselves lapped early and 29th at day's end. Moffitt is still young and there will be more bad races ahead and even more learning. Saturday's race was certainly the former.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Really, none. But we'll give a nod to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who recovered from pit road penalties to finish 15th. Roush Fenway Racing came to TMS in desperation, with radically different setups in their cars in an attempt to right their struggling program. Greg Biffle and Trevor Bayne were 17th and 18h. The finishes are better than the team actually ran most of the night, but top 20s for all three cars is a start.
Wheel of Misfortune: Ryan Blaney - Blaney qualified the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford 13th and seemed poised to post a solid showing in Saturday's race. Instead the engine broke a valve and soon expired, ending the night 42nd. Blaney will have plenty more chances to show his stuff at the Cup level, but that failure stung for sure.
The Jimmie Johnson Lucky Horse Shoe: Branny Hamlowski - Okay, that's getting old. But both Keselowski and Hamlin got penalties and had to make up big deficits. Keselowski, as said before, pitted under green and got off sequence. But in all cases, the cautions played in their favor and saved their races. Even though these guys are secured inside the Chase and the points don't matter much, they still want as much security as possible.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Just what is going on with Tony Stewart? Is his team as far off the mark as they are running, or is their star driver feeling the physical and mental weight of not only age, but also the traumas he has been through the last two years? Saturday garnered yet another poor finish - 24th - far from close to where they should be. Stewart is 32nd in points, behind Cole Whitt, Sam Hornish Jr., and Justin Allgaier. His teammate Kurt Busch has run three less races and is 21st in points. His other teammate Kevin Harvick is running better than anyone and even Danica Patrick is starting to improve. The full story of what is wrong with the No. 14 team or three-time champion Stewart is not known and that just may be on purpose.
NXS RaceTweet: Erik Jones impresses again, winning his first NXS race at TMS. Oh and he's just 18.
Georgia On My Mind: David Ragan was fast in the No. 18 again for Joe Gibbs Racing, but the Unadilla driver started only 30th in Saturday's Cup race. Ragan surged toward the front and ran solidly inside the top 10 most of the night. He fell back as far as 16th or 17th on a late restart and drove up to 13th at the end. Chase Elliott returned to NXS racing with another lackluster finish by his standards, 8th in a race that he won last year. John Wes Townley was 17th and Ryan Sieg 20th, which is about standard for them.
Next: Back to the short tracks, baby! Bristol Motor Speedway hosts the Sprint Cup and Xfinity cars. The Cup teams run Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX and the NXS runs at 1:30 Saturday on FS1. Performance Racing Network will carry both races on the radio. Martinsville was exciting and crash-filled, so there's a good chance of Bristol fireworks.