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Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Motor sports: Johnson tames repaved track for seventh TMS victory

FORT WORTH -- Whether it's a worn-out track last paved in 2001 or a surface completed a month ago, Jimmie Johnson has a handle on Texas Motor Speedway.

Johnson passed Joey Logano for the lead with 16 laps to go Sunday and won the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 -- his track-record seventh Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in Denton County.

"What a tough track and tough conditions. We were really in our wheelhouse and we were just able to execute all day," Johnson said. "Oh, it was hot in there. I got cooked in the car today. I didn't have any fluids, so I'm not feeling the best, but we got into Victory Lane. I'm so proud of the fight in this race team."

Johnson said his in-car drink system failed. After the race, the Hendrick Motorsports driver went to the infield medical center and received three bags of IV fluids.

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson uses a damp towel to cool down after winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson uses a damp towel to cool down after winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Most of the leaders made pit stops with 61 laps to go, but Logano stayed out for 16 more laps before he got new tires. When a caution flag flew 10 laps later, Logano was able to stay out and retake the lead as his rivals stopped again.

On the restart with 30 to go, Johnson passed Kevin Harvick for second and started stalking Logano. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet caught Logano's No. 22 Ford in Turn 4 of Lap 318, ducked to the inside and nosed ahead at the start/finish line.

Series points leader Kyle Larson passed Harvick for third but had a hard time getting by Logano. Larson eventually made the pass with 1 1/2 laps to go and trailed Johnson by eight-tenths of a second. Larson sliced that deficit in half but ran out of time and collected his fourth runner-up finish in seven races this season, to go with his win in Fontana, California.

"I think if I could have gotten by Joey with maybe five to go, I think I could ... I definitely would have caught Jimmie. Passing him is obviously another story," Larson said. "But I would have at least had a couple opportunities to get behind him and work the air behind him and try to get by."

Logano was third and was followed by Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the top five. Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.

TMS officials were forced to repave the 1 1/2-mile oval after all three of its marquee races suffered weather delays last season. The porous asphalt had become difficult to dry, creating hardships for fans and racers alike.

As part of the repaving project, officials also decided to reconfigure Turns 1 and 2, reducing the high-banked south end of the track from 24 degrees to 20 degrees and widening the racing surface there from 60 feet to 80.

Johnson said the preferred route through the new turns was the inside lane.

"The way we turn into Turn 1 right now, it's so different than it's ever been here," Johnson said. "It's really the slowest way around here. Once we can run the second to third lane, I think we can come close to running wide open around 1 and 2, and right now actually you're out of the throttle pretty early just after the start/finish line and on the brakes to make such a tight radius.

"It's going to be really fun when it widens out."

TMS worked to artificially age the new asphalt -- using soap, lime and tires -- in an effort to reduce grip and make side-by-side racing possible from the get-go. Those efforts appeared to pay off, as drivers used multiple lanes to make passes and employed varying tire strategies that mixed up the field.

"It was drivable finally, kind of the midway point of the race on," Johnson said. "But I'm really excited for when we come back and we actually run the middle to the high side in 1 and 2."

It also was the first Cup race at TMS under NASCAR's new three-stage race format, and Ryan Blaney won Stages 1 and 2, earning two bonus points for use in the playoffs. Johnson earned five playoff points with the victory.

Blaney led a race-high 148 laps. It was the first time the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford led 100 laps in a race since Neil Bonnett led 108 circuits en route to a third-place finish at Rockingham on Oct. 31, 1982. (Finishing fourth that Halloween was Corpus Christi's Terry Labonte in the No. 44 Texas Jeans Buick.)

Blaney stopped for tires after winning Stage 2 and won the race off pit road, but 19 drivers did not stop. Blaney restarted 20th and slowly made his way back into the top 10, but a botched final pit stop took him out of contention and he finished 12th.

"We thought we had enough time after Segment 2 to try to work our way back up through there, and a restart after Segment 2 really went bad for us," Blaney said. "We got jumbled up in [Turns] 1 and 2 and let a lot cars get by. That was kind of the deciding factor.

"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."

Johnson's second victory in the O'Reilly 500 is the 81st of his career. He is two wins behind NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list. His only other top-10 finish this season was a ninth-place effort at Phoenix International Raceway.

Larson and Johnson started Stage 3 immediately behind Blaney with 157 laps to go.

"The end of the second stage kind of played a weird game on us with guys pitting and not pitting, and I still drove up there, passed all those cars and won this thing," Johnson said. "An awesome car."

Larson now leads second-place Elliott by 17 points. The series will take Easter off before returning April 23 at Bristol.

Briefly ...

Austin Dillon took the No. 3 Chevy to the garage before the race started. Richard Childress Racing worked underneath the car while the field took the green flag, and Dillon entered the race 11 laps down. He finished 33rd. ... Prosper's Chris Buescher finished 21st, the first car off the lead lap. He was spun out on pit road early in the race and later suffered a loose wheel. ... Johnson started the race at the back of the field after spinning in qualifying and needing to make an unapproved tire change.