By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 appeared to be a return to form for Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion earned a top-five finish at Texas Motor Speedway, his first since last year’s Coke 600. His No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 led the way for 60 laps, more than all of the laps the Hendrick Motorsports driver led last season.
When the final caution waved with 80 laps to go, Johnson, along with most of the field, pitted. He restarted from fifth, running well inside the top-10 for much of the final run. Johnson spent much of the final 74 green flag laps battling teammates William Byron and Chase Elliott, as well as Aric Almirola.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction!” Johnson explained. “Car was good in clean air and had a lot of speed in it, so I think we have found kind of center for our cars and what has to happen.”
Although he led the opening 60 laps, Johnson’s car struggled behind others. His No. 48 darted up the track multiple times as he battled with stage one winner Joey Logano. It did the same behind Elliott and others as well.
“It was a little evil in traffic, and I had a heck of a time on green flag restarts, but really worked hard to get it up underneath me and tightening the car up a little bit for us to race. Ended up having great pace and decent drivability, so are working in the right direction.
“I am just so proud of everybody on this Ally team. We’ve had a lot of pressure on us, and everyone has stepped up and getting it done.”
Johnson ran inside the top-15 for much of the 500-mile race. He slipped outside the top-10 for brief moments throughout the race before working his way back inside.
The speed Johnson had was evident throughout the entire weekend. After he was fastest in the opening Friday practice, the El Cajon, CA native qualified on the pole. It was his first pole since 2016 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnson was fifth fastest in the second practice.
“For me, I was just trying to get a consistent weekend,” Johnson admitted. “It is one thing to have one-lap paced, we needed that and we did that on Friday. Then, Saturday went really well.
“So, in the back of my mind I was thinking we just needed to have a rock-solid day, and if we did that, then I could confirm to myself and to everyone else that we are moving in the right direction.”
The top-five finish, Johnson’s first with crew chief Kevin Meendering, and first of 2019. He remains 15th in the championship points standings, 134-points behind points leader Kyle Busch. Johnson is just three points ahead of the playoff cutoff, held by Erik Jones.