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WAID’S WORLD: Observations From Texas – Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. And More

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With your kind tolerance, a few observations from Texas:

—- Jimmie Johnson had not recorded a single top-10 finish six races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (working on it). There quickly arose rumblings that Johnson – in fact the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization – wouldn’t be championship fodder.

I’m not certain why such talk about a seven-time champion and his team would transpire so early in any given season. Reckon Johnson’s sluggish start had its impact.

But it has all been put aside after Johnson won the O’reilly Auto Parts 500 to log his first win of the season and the 81st of his career.

Johnson may be 11th in points but there are 19 races remaining before the payoffs begin. He really doesn’t have to worry too much about points. His Texas win puts him in the 10-race title hunt.

Which means he will have the opportunity to race for an eighth career championship. Should he win it he will become NASCAR’s all-time leader, moving out of a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Make no mistake Johnson wants that eighth title.

—- Speaking of Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his first top-five of the season at Texas, finishing fifth.

His best previous finish was a 14th at Phoenix. Before Texas he had not recorded a single top-10 finish.

His lumbering start, something largely unexpected, created some speculation that he had not fully recovered from the concussion that robbed him of half the 2016 season.

I chimed in over Earnhardt Jr.’s travails but I’ve never believed his injury had anything to do with them. I didn’t speculate over a cause, but I accept the explanation of crew chief Greg Ives, who suggested that it was a combination of “mistakes and the need to gain more speed.”

“I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I know our fans are really pulling for us.  Could have finished a little better, but we will take top five.”

Sometimes in racing it takes one positive, if small, development to turn things around. That may well be the case for Earnhardt Jr.

—- Kyle Larson continues to amaze.

The baby-faced Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished second at Texas. Hey, nothing new there.

He did it despite the fact he started from the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying inspection. He also sustained a pit road penalty.

“I felt like maybe if I didn’t have that pit road penalty early in the race I could have gotten to the lead,” Larson said. “Just a little mistake on my part and we’ve got to clean that up a little bit and maybe we will win some more of these.”

In seven races Larson has collected five top-five finishes, including second four times (!) and one victory. He has also earned two pole positions.

He remains first in points, as position he assumed after Phoenix four weeks ago where he finished – you guessed it – second.

I’m not sure if Larson has established a NASCAR record. I only know that I don’t remember any other driver with such success in the span of a season’s first seven races.

—- When the Wood Brothers returned to full-time competition a year ago with driver Ryan Blaney, many long-time NASCAR fans hoped they would, at some point, approach the great success the Woods enjoyed in the past with such drivers as A.J. Foyt, David Pearson and Neil Bonnett.

The 2016 season wasn’t a bad one. However, early in 2017, things are different and at Texas Blaney and the Woods showed sparks of days past.

Blaney led 148 laps, more than any other driver, and won two of the race’s three stages. They were the first such victories of his career.

His dominance ended when he and six other drivers did not pit during a caution late during the second stage. Blaney held on to win.

But he lost track position on his subsequent pit stop. He fell to 20th place. However, he steadily moved up the ranks. He cracked the top 10 before an errant pit stop, during which he slid through his pit box, removed him from contention. He wound up 12th.

Nevertheless it was the Wood’s most dominant performance since Rockingham in1982 with Bonnett on board.

“We made our way up to seventh or eighth and then pitted.” Blaney said. “I got into our box too long and we were wedged in between two cars. I was over the line by a few inches.

“I put us in that hole. We probably should have stayed out looking back on it, but that is easy to do. I think it says a lot about this team about how good a car we had today.”

Blaney’s two stage victories helped him climb to sixth in points.

That’s good but there will likely be better. I think Blaney, along with Chase Elliott, will win. For both it is merely a question of time.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, MotorsportsUnplugged.com and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.