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Sports

With Texas Changes, 6-Time Winner Not Even a NASCAR Favorite

"It's a clean sheet of paper. You can't pick a favorite right now," Johnson said Friday

Kyle Larson comes out of Turn 4 during a practice session for Sunday's Monster Energy Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, April 7, 2017, photo: AP/Larry Papke
7 months ago

NFORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson has led more laps at Texas than any other NASCAR Cup Series driver, and won a record six times there.

But all that was before the entire 1 1/2-mile track was repaved, and Turns 1 and 2 were reconfigured.

“It’s a clean sheet of paper. You can’t pick a favorite right now,” Johnson said Friday. “Any time there is a reconfiguration, a new asphalt, it’s a total game changer. All of past history is now out the window and it’s like we are coming here for the first time.”

Even for guys like Johnson , who will make his 28th start Sunday at the Texas track that was completely repaved earlier this year for the first time since 2001.

“Everyone is on equal playing ground,” Trevor Bayne said. “Nobody has 10 years of notebooks to go to and say, ‘I am Kevin Harvick and I run the bottom at Atlanta and I am really good at it.’ You can’t do that now. You don’t know what you need to do.”

Harvick is the polesitter after winning all three rounds of qualifying Friday, including a fast lap of 198.405 mph on the fresh track. Johnson qualified 24th, making it through the first round despite a spin and then not running another qualifying lap.

On only the second lap of the nearly 2 1/2-hour Cup practice Friday, Denny Hamlin got loose and spun through Turns 1 and 2, but was able to keep his car off the wall. Kyle Busch later made slight contact with the rear of his car against the outer wall after going too high into the wider and less-banked area on the track.

“I just missed the entry point getting into Turn 1,” Busch said, referring to the area in the track where the changes begin.

Chase Elliott wasn’t as fortunate, forced into a backup car after crashing the primary No. 24 Chevrolet coming out of Turn 2. Erik Jones also had to go to a backup car after his crash, when he went hard into the wall through Turns 3 and 4.

Jimmie Johnson (L), talks with Crew chief Chad Knaus (R) on pit road during qualifying for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, April 7, 2017. Photo: AP/Larry Papke

 

“It’s going to get better, but the problem is the groove itself keeps getting better and better and better as we run in it,” Martin Truex Jr. said “The faster you’re going in the groove, the faster you’re going when you get out of it.”

Johnson has 1,023 laps led in the Lone Star State, well ahead of Matt Kenseth’s 854 that is the second-most and with one more start there. Johnson has 20 top-10 finishes, including the runner-up four times by less than a half-second.

Before last year, when Joe Gibbs Racing drivers swept the two Texas races, Johnson had won three in a row and five of the previous seven here. Busch won last April and Carl Edwards, who has since stepped away from driving, got his fourth Texas victory last fall.

Texas announced plans in January to repave the track and do extensive drainage improvements after both NASCAR weekends and the IndyCar race at Texas last year were hampered by rain. TMS President Eddie Gossage said the old asphalt had become porous, almost like sponge, making it difficult to dry in a timely matter. The IndyCar race had to be pushed back 2 1/2 months after two days of rain.

As part of the project, completed before this race so the track would be the same for the Chase race there in November, Texas also made changes in Turns 1 and 2. The banking was reduced from 24 degrees to 20 degrees and the racing surface widened from 60 to 80 feet in that area.

“I think the asphalt itself is going to be a bigger factor in this first race,” Johnson said. “As time goes on I think the extra real estate we have in 1 and 2 will become more the story, but getting started it’s going to be tire wear-related and the asphalt.”

At least it should be dry. There’s no significant chance for rain in North Texas until next week.

STEPHEN HAWKINS

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