FORT WORTH, Texas – The first night race of the season is in the books and what a wild ride it was.
Let’s take a look back at what we learned Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.
For the first time in exactly a year – since the 2015 spring race at Texas – all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers landed top-10 finishes in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the charge, coming up just short of his first 2016 win with a second-place finish.
“I was happy with our team,” Earnhardt said. “I was happy with my car. It was great to see Chase [Elliott] up there. I got to race with him a little bit and his car was doing some great things and he was driving a really good line.”
Jimmie Johnson followed Earnhardt to the checkered flag in fourth, with rookie Elliott driving home with his first top-five finish of the season in fifth.
“I definitely think it was a solid night,” Elliott said following the race. “It’s not a perfect night. We would love to turn all four cars in the top 10 to all four cars in the top five and I think that’s a goal we have to shoot for. I think we have a team and people that are capable of doing that, so we want to keep working at it.”
Kasey Kahne rounded out the team’s effort with an eighth-place finish.
“We were down a lap a lot of it, but we were really competitive,” Kahne said. “Once we got back up there I think we were definitely a top-10 car and we finished eighth. It was the best we have done in a long time. It feels nice.”
ROOKIE’S FIRST TOP-FIVE
Elliott led his teammates in qualifying efforts Friday night, landing himself a fourth-place starting position for Saturday’s race. However, a transmission swap on race day forced the driver to the rear of the field for the green flag.
The 20-year-old didn’t let that faze him, however, and made quick work of climbing through the field. By Lap 15, he had already gained 10 positions and following a caution after the 200-lap mark, was inside the top five.
“For us, we’re excited to run in the top five,” Elliott said. “We’re also not content and we want to be contenders, and running fifth isn’t a contender. You’ve got to be up a little higher.”
After a late-race caution and decision by No. 24 team crew chief Alan Gustafson to pit for four tires and fuel, Elliott returned to the track in eighth and charged inside the top five once again to take the checkered flag in fifth, recording his first career top-five finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
“Being on offense is good,” the driver said of the late trip to pit road. “I was happy we did it and we tried to make the most of it.”
Top-10 finishes did not come quite as easily for the other two Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Johnson and Kahne.
They took the green flag in 11th and 17th, respectively, and had a battle on their hands from the get-go.
On the first pit stop of the night, Johnson made contact with the back of a competitor’s car as he exited pit road, causing damage to the front of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS.
Johnson admitted that the damage to his Chevy was more extensive than he had thought.
“We had to fix the damage on the nose and it wasn’t pretty,” the driver said.
Johnson also found himself a lap down after being caught on pit road when a yellow flag was thrown later in the race. He was given the wave-around and made a late-race surge back up through the field to bring home fourth.
“There’s a lot of fight in this Lowe’s team today,” he said. “I’m grateful for the great equipment and the fight that these guys have because with all the damage and adversity we went through tonight, to come home fourth is really good for this Lowe’s Chevrolet.”
Kahne also battled the entire 500-miles of the race after starting mid-pack. He followed Earnhardt through the field after taking the green but faded, going a lap down for the better part of the event.
“We got behind, got a lap down early again and we just had to fight back,” Kahne said.
The driver of the No. 5 Quicken Loans Chevy said he was fighting a loose car, hampering his speed, but that his team did a great job of tightening the car up.
“We just battled,” the driver said. “There at the end we were actually pretty competitive the last probably 250 laps – like, really competitive.”