Johnson's joyless win

Jimmie Johnson took his second victory in as many weekends in the Subway 500 at Martinsville but the result was marred by the news that a plane carrying members of the Hendrick team that he drives for, crashed en route to the circuit

Johnson's joyless win

NASCAR said no other details about who was on the plane, where it disappeared or what may have preceded the loss of contact were immediately available. All the Hendrick drivers were summoned to the team transporter after the race and Johnson was excused from the Victory Lane celebrations.

Newman and Penske team-mate Rusty Wallace also made contact in the final laps as the veteran went for broke to win his eighth race at Martinsville. Wallace wasn't amused and a post-race 'Days of Thunder' wheel-banging session took place on the slow-down lap.

The news of the Hendrick plane crash cut short Johnson's celebrations, after what had been an exciting and eventful race. Johnson brought his car to a stop on the pit lane and was greeted by crew chief Chad Knaus, father Gary, and other team officials.

All four of the Hendrick teams were excused from normal post-race formalities and were taken to the NASCAR office to await details.

Obviously, there were no comments from any of the Hendrick drivers and crews, including Johnson, Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth, Terry Labonte, who was 25th, and Brian Vickers, 27th. Hendrick Motorsports is considered one of the most powerful teams in NASCAR racing.

NASCAR VP of communications Jim Hunter informed the press that authorities had lost contact with the plane and that the NTSB and FAA were investigating, but he said he had no other details. He said NASCAR officials had made contact with Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, indicating Mr Hendrick was not on the plane.

Hunter said NASCAR officials learned of the plane's disappearance shortly after the race began and that Johnson and the others on the team were not informed until the race was over. The race was run under chilly, cloudy sky after morning rain.

What should have been a moment of great joy and achievement for Johnson and crew thus ended in sadness. Johnson, who had fallen to ninth in the season standings, gained back to fourth place with the victory Sunday. He stands officially 207 points behind leader Kurt Busch with four races to go.

Johnson started 18th and worked steadily into the top 10 after 150 of the 500 laps. Several pit strategies were in play among the various teams, and it never became quite clear until toward the end who would be in the right place at the right time. There were 17 cautions, four over the last 50 laps, after Johnson had taken the lead for good.

Johnson took over the lead from Jamie McMurray, who had gambled on a different pit cycle for track position and remained competitive. He passed McMurray on Lap 405 for the top spot, then yielded it when Sterling Marlin and Terry Labonte skipped the caution stops on lap 410. Johnson came out of the pits third.

Johnson moved to second place and closed on Marlin by lap 435, taking the lead on Lap 440. He was able to get away at each restart, with Ryan Newman and McMurray roughing each other up the final two laps for second.

There were several other tests of temper, with Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd and Matt Kenseth tangling after the chequered flag. Robby Gordon hit about everyone on the track at one time or other.

Kurt Busch, the points leader, led the most laps (120) but seemed not to have the muscle at the finish. He finished fifth, however, putting more distance between himself and challengers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon rallied for ninth with a pit gamble at the end, but Earnhardt was nowhere close all day, finally wreck out and finishing 33rd.

Busch now leads Gordon by 96 points and Earnhardt by 125 with four races left.

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