Splitter to Spoiler: Jimmie Johnson suddenly knows how to drive again

Johnson mocks doubters after Texas win, Blaney sacrifices first victory for stage wins and what is wrong with Joe Gibbs Racing?

Jerome Miron—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (48) celebrates winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth

Jimmie Johnson has done a lot of winning over the course of his 16-year career with Hendrick Motorsports. Heading into this season, he amassed 80 checkered flags and seven championships, the latter tying him with only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty atop the list.Seven-Time has done so much winning, in fact, that questions start being raised when he starts off without one through the first few races.With just one top 10 entering Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson was looking to get the monkey off his back at one of his best tracks. Once he did that, he decided to go in on any doubters assuming he was experiencing a drop off after winning his seventh title last year.”I guess I remembered how to drive,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I guess this team remembered how to do it! I’m just real proud of this team. What a tough track and tough conditions. We were really in our wheelhouse and we were just able to execute all day.”Johnson’s little stab at his critics comes as he adds to his record-setting win count at Texas with a seventh, top fives at 15, top 10s at 21 and laps led at a ridiculous 1,041. Even with the repaving project that took place last year, JJ’s dominance in the Lone Star State hasn’t changed.Oh, and that all comes after Johnson had to start from the 40th position — that’s last, for those counting at home — after he incurred a penalty following a spin during qualifying. Asked if there is new ownership of the track after the repave, Johnson smiled and gave yet another quirky response.”I thought the repave might change it,” Johnson said. “But I still think I have the keys to the front door.”As for any questions about Hendrick’s place in NASCAR this season, both Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved they are going to be just fine. Johnson, Earnhardt and Chase Elliott all finished inside the top 10 on Sunday, but there is still plenty of room for improvement in the Hendrick stable moving forward.With two short tracks, Talladega and Charlotte over the next five points races, look for Johnson and Hendrick to keep proving the doubters wrong.Blaney sacrifices victory for stage winsThe new stage format has thrown a wrench in NASCAR that nearly every team is still working on mastering. Seven races into the season, only one driver — Martin Truex Jr. in Las Vegas — has won both stages and went on to take the checkered flag. And Truex needed a late pass of Brad Keselowski to clinch the victory.On Sunday, Ryan Blaney was trying to do the same. The only difference? His team sacrificed solid positioning to start the third stage for the playoff point in the second.With a late caution in the second stage, Blaney decided to remain on the track with four old tires instead of heading to the pits. He held off the competition to clinch that playoff point, but would have to restart from the middle of the pack to start the third stage after pitting to get those sticker tires.The result? Blaney was never able to get back into the top five — overshooting his pit box didn’t help on a late caution — and wound up outside the top 10 despite leading 148 of the 334 laps. Johnson, the eventual winner, led a total of 18 laps on Sunday.Blaney did his best to try to explain what all went into the decision.”It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,” Blaney said. “Now I say we should have stayed out the last caution and might have had a better shot at it. But you can’t really change any of that now. Yeah, in hindsight, that was kind of a judgment call. You give up a stage win, 10 points and a bonus point for the playoffs to try to set yourself for the end of the race.”We thought we had enough time after segment two to try to work our way back up through there, and a restart actually after segment two really went bad for us. We got jumbled up in [Turns] 1 and 2 and let a lot of cars get by. That was kind of the deciding factor I feel like. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”As I wrote at the end of last month, Blaney is helping revive a program that two years ago didn’t even have a full-time ride. So leading nearly half of the race and coming away with two playoff points to go along with 48 total points in the regular season standings certainly isn’t a bad race.But for a team still in need of clinching a spot in NASCAR’s postseason for those playoff points to mean anything, the win would have been much more valuable in Texas.What is going on with Joe Gibbs Racing?Looking for the top finisher at Texas for Joe Gibbs Racing? Keep scrolling down the page.Yeah, you won’t find one until Kyle Busch, who finished 15th on Sunday with teammate Matt Kenseth right behind him. It’s been that kind of year for JGR, which has just one driver — Busch — inside the top 10 in the points standings heading into the first off weekend of the season.This all comes after Gibbs sent all four drivers to the NASCAR playoffs last year for the second consecutive season. By this point last year, JGR already had three wins and would capture four straight for victories in five of the first nine races.The only driver with a Gibbs affiliation that is locked in to the playoffs at this point? Martin Truex Jr. with Furniture Row Racing, a formerly single-car team that has looked far more consistent than any Gibbs driver in 2017.Is there any reason for concern with JGR? Not with nearly 20 races remaining in the regular season. But with a slew of drivers stepping up early on in the season and only one repeat winner through the first seven races, things are already getting a little crowded at the top as the Gibbs drivers look to play catch up.