Jimmie Johnson, carrying photos of remembrance of the fallen passengers of flight 501 on the hood, wheeled his No. 48 Chevy into victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This was Johnson's third consecutive win, and first since the plane crash...
Jimmie Johnson, carrying photos of remembrance of the fallen passengers of flight 501 on the hood, wheeled his No. 48 Chevy into victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This was Johnson's third consecutive win, and first since the plane crash that killed nine members of the Hendrick Motorsports organization and one member of Tony Stewart's company.
In contrast to last week's win, which saw Johnson bypass victory lane after learning of the crash, there was triumphant joy as the entire Hendrick family on site at AMS descended on the winner's circle. Teammates Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Brian Vickers showered Johnson with hugs, tears and congratulations as they all turned their baseball caps backwards in tribute to the late Ricky Hendrick.
"Once I got in the car today I knew exactly what we were supposed to do," Johnson said. "I honestly forgot about everything until the checkered flag. I wanted to do the victory lap to honor our friends. It doesn't change anything and we don't get back our friends that we lost. But it makes all of us feel a little better to be able to do something like this.
"This is unbelievable. I don't even know what to say. I just talked to Rick (Hendrick) on the phone and he told me to put my hat on backwards for "Little Ricky".
"I don't even know where to start. As I am sure you can imagine, I am at a loss for words."
The break of the race for Johnson came at lap 302 when he pitted for four tires and leader Mark Martin decided to stay out. The fresh rubber was crucial to Johnson powering from fourth to first within six laps of the restart.
But the win wasn't his yet.
A late-race caution saw the lead lap cars enter pit road for tires on lap 311, but Kasey Kahne did not pit grabbing the lead and Joe Nemechek beat the field off the grid for second.
As if in a script sent down from the Fates after the tragedy of last week, Johnson sailed past his competitors and held off the hard-charging car of Mark Martin to nail down the lead for the final time on lap 315.
"I knew the 6 was coming," said Johnson. "But I had 10 angels riding on this race car."
It was a popular win in the NASCAR garage, a tight-knit community that had been rocked by the sobering reality of last week's ordeal. There was nary a dry eye on pit road, in the media center, and in the stands as the four Hendrick teams broke out into a spontaneous celebration as Johnson's 13th career win was recorded in the NASCAR annals.
Mark Martin led a race high 227 laps, and mounted a charge on Johnson in the races closing laps but in the end the No. 6 did not have enough time or enough steam to motor past the No. 48 Chevy.
He settled for second.
"We had a great car today and a great effort by our team," Martin said. "I don't think there was any real failure of our parts. The competition knew that the way they were gonna win was to try to get us caught in a box, so with only nine cars on the lead lap when that last caution came out, gosh, I didn't think we had hardly any laps on our tires at all. I thought we were OK there.
"If we pitted, they would stay out and it would be difficult for us to win. We might have, and I thought we were in a situation where Pat Tryson (crew chief) just couldn't win. It was a tough deal."
Carl Edwards led his first ever NEXTEL Cup race at AMS but finished third. Edwards was thrown into controversy when on lap 310 he made contact with championship hopeful Dale Earnhardt, Jr. causing him to spin and hit hard into the infield retaining wall.
"I feel terrible for the 8 car," said Edwards. "He crowded me up there and we bumped and that ended his day. He's a great guy and I hate that, but we had a good run. I was happy. It was not intentional by any means."
Joe Nemechek continues his recent streak of awesome finishes, coming home fourth.
"We got lucky and came in fourth," said Nemechek. "But I think we had a car that maybe could have finished first or second. We'll take that. We're building momentum. This team is on fire right now."
Kasey Kahne racked up his 12th top-10 finish of 2004, with a fifth place result.
The complexion of the championship standings has changed with just three races to go. Kurt Busch has shown that he may be the luckiest man alive, at intervals during the race he could have fallen as far as third in points. Problems, however, for Earnhardt and Gordon helped save his view from the catbird seat.
"It's just one bad race," said Busch. "You could four bad races if everybody has four bad races. Right now, the 24 has been decent at most of the race tracks as well as the 8, but they had a problem last week.
"We stumbled this week, but we've got three more to go and they're great race tracks for us."
Busch continues to lead the series, followed by Jimmie Johnson (-59), Jeff Gordon (-72), Mark Martin (-81), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (-98), Tony Stewart (145), Ryan Newman (-186), Elliott Sadler (-237), Matt Kenseth (-257), and Jeremy Mayfield (-316) complete the top ten in the NEXTEL Chase for the Championship.
There were six cautions for 33 laps and 16 lead changes among seven drivers.