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Tragedy mutes celebration

Plane crash that struck Hendrick Motorsports overshadows a win by one of the team's drivers, Jimmie Johnson.

Associated Press
Published October 25, 2004

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Jimmie Johnson's Nextel Cup series-high sixth victory of the season Sunday was overshadowed by word that a plane carrying members of the Hendrick Motorsports organization crashed on the way to Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR officials informed Johnson and three other Hendrick drivers, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers, of the crash after the Subway 500. Johnson, who did a burnout on the frontstretch in front of the fans after winning, was excused from Victory Lane.

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."

While Busch led a race-high 120 laps, leading contenders 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.

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 left to gain track position, then stayed in the top 10 the rest of the way and finished ninth.

Gordon crashed on the first lap Oct. 16 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., went two laps down, spun out and rallied to finish second.

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 0.526-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 under 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 was hit 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," Earnhardt 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.

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