When you think of tracks that fit Jimmie Johnson’s driving style, Texas doesn’t cross your mind first. There’s Dover, the Monster Mile where he’s led more laps and earned more trophies than anyone else. Charlotte, now Lowe’s Motor Speedway was a track that was once nicknamed “Jimmie’s House” for his dominance. And Martinsville, although Johnson struggled there this year, has long been a place where the No. 48 team has emerged victorious, a short track he used as a catapult toward many of his six Cup championships.
Perhaps, though it’s time to take a serious look at how Texas has emerged as a playground for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. Their victory in the spring race Saturday night was their fourth in the last six Cup races held down in Fort Worth, leading a total of 742 laps along the way. That’s a higher win total for him over the same stretch compared to any other track on the circuit, even Dover (where he’s won a career-high nine times). During the race Saturday night, Johnson seemed to glide all over the track with ease, mastering both the short and long-run setups crucial to NASCAR’s 1.5-mile ovals. It was the No. 48 team at their best, never out of touch with the track and seemingly in cruise control over a victory which, without the presence of Kevin Harvick and teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have turned into a cakewalk.
“Texas has just kind of grown for us,” Johnson said after the race. “I think the tracks with high wear, bumps, all those types of things, have just always been a good surface for the 48.”
The emergence of this race is important on Johnson’s resume because of the way the new Chase unfolds. With the three-round elimination format, the only way you protect yourself from bad luck during the playoffs is by scoring victories. Now, the No. 48 team has not one but two tracks in the final round where they’re considered heavy favorites: Martinsville and Texas. It helps protect them and potentially adds an extra week for the team to focus on one of the few places they haven’t run well consistently – Homestead – the track that now holds the key to a record-tying seventh title.
Johnson’s Texas triumph is just one of the stories we’re following. Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Chevys Back In Control
Johnson’s victory, his second of the season continued a running theme of Chevy dominance at intermediate tracks. Other than the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, no one else was in serious contention, as the Bowtie Brigade led 288 of 334 laps. It’s developed into a running theme where Hendrick engines, chassis and setups on the 1.5-mile ovals dominate over all other competitors.
Consider this fact: six of the top 8 at Texas had Hendrick power under the hood. With the 2015 rules package staying intact, at least for the foreseeable future it’s clear who everyone else has to catch.
“Stats don’t lie and the stats say that those guys or really anyone with a Hendrick engine or chassis is going to be capable of winning right now,” said Toyota’s Denny Hamlin. “To be realistic, we need stuff to go our way. We need cautions and track position. We just can’t drive through the field like that – what those guys are capable of – and we’re a work in progress.”
SECOND GEAR: Kahne’s Quiet Consistency
Much of the focus at Hendrick has centered on Johnson’s surge to the top, Jeff Gordon’s final season or Earnhardt, Jr.’s interaction with new crew chief Greg Ives. Lost in it all has been the way Kasey Kahne has shown consistency this season, his first with new head wrench Keith Rodden. It seems like the No. 5 car has been revitalized, finishing each race inside the top 20 while battling through bad luck that seems to hound Kahne’s tenure with HMS.
“There were times when I felt really competitive with the leaders and other times more like a fifth-place car,” Kahne said. “Keith (Rodden, crew chief) did a great job; we prepared a nice car. We just left too many wheels loose throughout the race. I think three; you can’t run well when you do that.”
Yet Kahne battled back to finish in eighth, fighting adversity that in previous years would have left him well outside the top 20. The chemistry is clicking here and that’s important considering how well the 10 Chase tracks play out in Kahne’s favor. Each of the rounds offers him an opportunity to win easily (Chicagoland, Charlotte, and Texas, respectively). A solid fifth in the standings, NASCAR’s one-time king of the 1.5-milers should have no problem making the Chase this season and can spend the summer testing combinations for the races that really count.
THIRD GEAR: Where Art Thou?
While the rest of Stewart-Haas Racing keeps humming along, its co-owner is mired back in 32nd in the Sprint Cup standings. Tony Stewart still sits without a top-10 finish, 24th at Texas and has struggled mightily despite running in the same organization as defending champion Kevin Harvick. At this point, even if Stewart won a race his current point position would make him ineligible to compete inside the Chase.
It’s also been a disastrous season for Sam Hornish, Jr. in his return to Cup competition. Hornish sits 29th in the Cup Series standings and does not have a top-20 finish outside of the Daytona 500. His teammate, Aric Almirola sits in Chase position by comparison which makes Hornish’s lack of performance stand out.
FOURTH GEAR: Small Team Struggles
It’s clear that the intermediates give the underdogs a decided disadvantage. But Texas was especially notable, with no “David” ever giving “Goliath” a run for their money. Among the smaller programs, David Gilliland did the best of the bunch, just 28th for Front Row Motorsports as none of them finished on the lead lap. Others, like Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett crashed while several suffered from mechanical failures.
Speed and handling, the two keys for an aging Texas track tend to make contending impossible here for these teams. The hope is Bristol this weekend will bring relief but with the way this year’s rule package has worked out, that’s no guarantee – even at one of the series’ most competitive arenas.
The emergence of young Erik Jones, who won Friday night’s XFINITY Series race down in Texas has Joe Gibbs Racing thinking about putting him in a Cup ride as soon as May. Does that mean David Ragan could be on the way out? Ragan, subbing for the injured Kyle Busch has finally started to seem comfortable driving the No. 18 Toyota, posting runs of fifth and 13th the last two weeks. But he’s contracted to a Ford team, Front Row Motorsports, and has failed to lead a lap all season long. Jones is a Toyota driver and potentially a future star within the JGR camp… The Texas race earned a paltry 2.9 overnight rating, the worst for the race since FOX started covering the sport in 2001. The last four Cup races have now seen declines in the Nielsens after a series of increases to start the year.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.