Johnson given tragic news after victory
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson's celebration of his series-high sixth victory of the season was cut short Sunday when he learned that a Hendrick Motorsports plane had crashed on its way to the race, killing all 10 people aboard.
Eight passengers and two pilots died in the crash, a spokesman with the National Transportation Safety Board said. State police said the dead included the son and brother of Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, two of his nieces, the company's chief engine builder and five others.
Johnson did a burnout on the front stretch in front of the fans after winning. Upon learning that the plane was missing, several members of the Hendrick teams gathered on pit road and huddled together.
NASCAR officials learned of the crash during the race at Martinsville Speedway, but waited until it was over before telling the Hendrick drivers or race fans. The Victory Lane celebration was canceled after the news was announced.
In the race, Johnson pulled away from Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman on a restart with seven laps to go to climb four spots in the season-ending title chase, but another solid performance by Kurt Busch moved him one step closer to winning NASCAR's first playoff championship.
"You've got to step up to the plate and race hard in each of these final 10'' races, Busch said after finishing fifth, his sixth top-six run in as many races since the playoff started. "We had a regular season and now we have a playoff and right now we haven't had a bad finish.''
With four races left, it's too early for celebrations, Busch said.
"It's a matter of keeping things in perspective. Our sponsors are getting excited and the team is definitely feeling a bit closer to things, but we have to definitely look at each event individually and each day individually with qualifying in Atlanta that's coming up next.''
While Busch led a race-high 120 laps, leading contenders Jeff Gordon struggled and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was never a factor, allowing Busch to build his lead to 96 points over Gordon and 125 over Earnhardt.
Earnhardt started the day just 24 points off the lead.
"We didn't really need this,'' Earnhardt said.
Gordon, seeking his fifth championship, started the day 74 points behind and gave his second straight dazzling show of driving, overcoming a car that ran in the mid-20s most of the day with strategy. He stayed on the track under a caution with about 150 laps to get track position, then remained in the top 10 the rest of the way and finished ninth.
Last week, Gordon crashed on the first lap at Charlotte, went two laps down, spun out and rallied to finish second and keep his hope alive.
Neither he nor Johnson was available for comment after the race.
For Gordon and several others, a new concrete and asphalt surface put down this summer on the half-mile oval proved hard to master. The race was run in one groove, and drivers who got out of that groove paid a dear price as several cars routinely passed underneath them with ease.
Earnhardt, seeking his sixth consecutive top-five finish at Martinsville, was among those shuffled back into the field early -- but that proved the least of his problems. After starting third, he had trouble getting his car to turn all day, made repeated trips to pit road and two to the garage area.
The second time came with 34 laps to go when he got run into by Kyle Petty and finally drove his Chevrolet to his hauler, ending his day.
"Every once in a while you get a bad batch of parts or something like that,'' he said. "We normally don't have these types of problems.''
Jamie McMurray finished second, Ryan Newman was third and Sterling Marlin fourth, giving Dodge the top three spots behind Johnson's Chevrolet. Busch was the top Ford and was followed by Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Green, both in Dodges, and the Chevys of Kevin Harvick and Gordon.
Johnson is now 207 points off the lead.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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