Third straight win for Johnson
Published: Monday, November 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 1, 2004 at 1:35 a.m.
HAMPTON, Ga. - On a grim day for most of NASCAR's championship contenders, Jimmie Johnson took his third straight checkered flag.
Never has a victory seemed more appropriate.
Johnson held off Mark Martin's dominating car to win Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, easing some of the pain from the tragedy that struck Hendrick Motorsports last weekend.
A team plane crashed while heading to the Nextel Cup race at Martinsville, Va., killing all 10 people aboard. Among the victims were the son and brother of owner Rick Hendrick, along with the team's general manager and chief engine builder.
Martin had the best car in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, his Ford leading 227 of the 325 laps. But a late yellow flag cost him the top spot, and the 45-year-old driver - a four-time series runner-up - couldn't chase down Johnson at the end.
Johnson beat Martin by 0.293 seconds - about five car lengths - to become the first driver to win three straight races in a season since Jeff Gordon won four in a row in 1998.
``The No. 6 car was coming, but I had 10 angels riding along,'' said Johnson, who led only 17 laps. ``I feel bad for Mark. He had the dominant car. But things happen for a reason.''
Johnson jumped two places to second in the season standings, just 59 points behind Kurt Busch. But the final three races should be quite a shootout - Gordon, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all within 98 points of the lead.
Busch was long gone by the time Johnson took the checkered flag under a setting sun. The points leader blew an engine on lap 52, pulling into the garage with smoke billowing from his Ford.
There was no chance of repairing it. His crew loaded the car into the hauler and settled for a next-to-last place finish, throwing the championship race wide open.
``I had a feeling in my stomach before the race,'' said Busch, who had not finished lower than sixth in the first six races of the Nextel Cup playoff. ``It was just one of those gut feelings where you don't feel as confident as the week before.''
But Busch managed to keep his points lead when six others in the 10-driver playoff ran into major problems, too.
Matt Kenseth, the defending Nextel Cup champion, blew an engine and finished 41st, one spot ahead of Busch. Elliott Sadler was 36th after a collision in the pits messed up his steering. Gordon battled an ill-handling car, had to duck into the garage to fix another problem and wound up 34th.
That's not all. Jeremy Mayfield cut a tire in the early going, scraped the wall and had to battle just to finish 26th. Pole sitter Ryan Newman was leading early when a mistake in the pits forced him to come back in; he wound up two laps down in 17th.
Finally, Earnhardt was in position to seize the season lead when he clipped Carl Edwards on the backstretch and slammed into the inside wall with just 15 laps to go. Junior's heavily damaged car couldn't finish, leaving him in 33rd for the second week in a row.
But no one seemed too upset about a Hendrick driver winding up in Victory Lane.
Johnson pulled his car along the flagstand and grabbed the checkered banner. Then, with it flapping out the driver's side, he circled the 1.54-mile trioval in reverse, soaking up the cheers of the crowd.
When Johnson got to the winner's circle, he made a quick cell phone call to Hendrick. The car owner asked everyone on the team to wear their hats backward - a tribute to the fashion sense of Hendrick's late son, Ricky, who was being groomed to take over the team.
Needing a few seconds to compose himself, Johnson finally climbed from the car and struggled to hold back the tears.
``There's no medicine like that,'' he said. ``It doesn't change anything. We don't get back the friends we lost. But it sure makes you feel better to do something like this.''
Martin yearns to win a championship before calling it a career. The Roush Racing driver has already announced that 2005 will be his final full season.
Edwards was third, the best finish of his young career. Joe Nemechek was fourth and Kahne held on for fifth.
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