Johnson's emotional win

Jimmie Johnson, on an emotional mission, bounced back from team tragedy with his third victory in a row, winning Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The victory also vaulted Johnson back into contention in the championship standings, as several of the prior front-runners, including championship leader Kurt Busch, had failures

Johnson's emotional win

In one of those moments of magic that seem to happen only in NASCAR, Johnson willed his way through a tangled final restart with 10 laps to go and won Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500. The victory, Johnson's third in a row, brought sudden joy to the Hendrick Motorsport group, devastated by a team plane crash last Sunday which took 10 lives.

Johnson, daring to run where no one else would go, ambushed post-caution leader Kasey Kahne and Joe Nemechek on lap 316 to take the top spot, then held off game Mark Martin to the finish. Martin, who led 237 of the 325 laps, saw yet another chance at victory slip from his grip, with his team caught in a no-win pit situation with 25 to go.

Martin, who seemed to have all his stars in line for once, could not contend over the final laps with what Johnson described as "10 angels". Martin, with easily the fastest car, chased Johnson hard but ran out of time, finishing 0.293s behind. Johnson racked up his series-high seventh win of the season.

There was nothing false or arranged about this one, which seemed to rank with other such magic moments in recent years. Examples: When owner Rick Hendrick announced his leukemia diagnosis at Daytona in 1997, his three teams then finished one-two-three in the Daytona 500. When legend Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona in 2001, his replacement, rookie Kevin Harvick, won two weeks later at Atlanta.

Last week at Martinsville, Johnson won, then was informed before he got out of his car that the plane had gone down. Among those killed were team president John Hendrick and his two daughters, team vice president Ricky Hendrick (son of owner Rick Hendrick), general manager Jeff Turner, and Randy Dorton, chief of the engine department and one of Rick Hendrick's original partners.

Despite the incalculable losses to the Hendrick family and to the company, the racing group pulled together and arrayed five teams for Sunday's race, as planned. Not only did the team make the show with all parts in place, they won. Team manager Ken Howes, another of Hendrick's long-time senior partners, deserves much credit for stepping into the breach.

Johnson himself was astonished.

"When we lost a whole bunch of our leaders there, the people that those leaders hired stepped up and got us here," he said. "When I say got us here, I don't mean victory lane, I mean just got us here to the race track - emotionally, physically, everything.

"Somebody had to step up and make the plane list. Somebody had to make sure the hotels were right. Everybody had to step up and make sure the engines were getting built for next week and make sure every other little thing was getting done. All the things we absolutely take for granted, somebody had to step up and make those things happen this week."

Not the least of whom was Johnson, who drove brilliantly, especially over the final 10 laps, to finish the job. Johnson then eschewed the normal juvenile victory burn-out in favour of a dignified lap of the track, holding the chequered flag out the window.

He then went to victory circle, where all the Hendrick drivers and crews awaited. Johnson took a brief phone call from boss Rick Hendrick, and team members promptly turned their caps backward in tribute to Ricky Hendrick, whom his father used to scold for doing just that.

"There were a lot of times I can remember Rick turning to Ricky and saying, 'Man, what are you doing? That isn't professional. You are a professional. Turn your hat around the right way," Johnson recalled. "For Rick to say that to me put a smile on my face."

Johnson's triumph also propelled him back into the championship picture. He had led much of the summer, but three straight DNFs in August dropped him out of the lead. After the Kansas race in October, Johnson had been ninth in points, 247 behind leader Kurt Busch. With three straight wins, and with Busch's misfortune Sunday (engine failure), Johnson is back in the race, just 59 behind Busch and ahead of team-mate Gordon, who had been second.

Gordon lost 30-some laps with a broken transmission and finished 34th. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who stood ready to take over the points lead while running top-five toward the end, fumbled and crashed on Llap 311, finishing 33rd.

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