Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:
1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason
One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.
Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.
— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)
— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)
Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.
“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.
Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.
“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”
Make that 81 wins.
Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.
Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.
2. Short-term vs. long-term gain
Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?
That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.
Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.
On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.
“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.
“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”
Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.
“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.
I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.
3. Woe is Gibbs
Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.
But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.
It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.
“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”
Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).
The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.
So what now?
“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”
4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.
You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.
So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).
“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.
Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.
His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.
Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.
And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.
“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”
5. That’s four twos for the 42
Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.
“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”
It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.
At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.
That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.