Jimmie Johnson's series-high sixth victory of the season yesterday was overshadowed by word that a plane carrying members of the Hendrick Motorsports organization had crashed [See story, Page A2].
NASCAR officials informed Johnson and three other Hendrick drivers of the crash after the race. Johnson was excused from Victory Lane.
In the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, 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. Kurt Busch was solid again and moved one step closer to wrapping up NASCAR's first playoff championship.
In a race where leading contenders Jeff Gordon struggled and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was never a factor, Busch finished fifth and expanded his points lead to 96 over Gordon and 125 over Earnhardt, who fell to third with four races left.
Earnhardt started the day just 24 points off the lead.
Busch started seventh and led a race-high 120 laps, earning a five-point bonus.
"You've got to step up to the plate and race hard in each of these final 10" races, he said. "We had a regular season and now we have a playoff and right now we haven't had a bad finish."
Busch has finished no worse than sixth in six races since NASCAR separated the top 10 in points for a 10-race championship playoff.
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 to get track position, then remained in the top 10 the rest of the way and finished ninth.
Last week, Gordon crashed on the first lap at Charlotte, went two laps down, spun out and rallied to finish second and keep his hope alive.
For Gordon and several others, a new concrete and asphalt surface laid down this summer on the half-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 underneath them with ease.
Earnhardt, seeking his sixth consecutive top-five finish here, 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 got run into by Kyle Petty and finally drove his Chevrolet to his hauler, ending his day.
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.
* FORMULA ONE: Juan Pablo Montoya won in his final race for Williams-BMW, beating future McLaren teammate Kimi Raikkonen to capture the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo.
In the last race of the season, native son Rubens Barrichello started from the pole for the second straight year and led early, but finished third in his best performance in 12 attempts at Interlagos. Barrichello's Ferrari teammate, Michael Schumacher, took seventh place.
"It was the first race I led in Brazil in 2001. I thought I could win," Montoya said. "Now it is nice to finish like this."
It was a disappointment for Ferrari, which won 15 of the 18 races this year and had Schumacher, with 13 of those victories, claim his seventh Formula One title.
The victory was Montoya's fourth in his Formula One career and first since the 2003 German Grand Prix. Next year, Montoya will drive for McLaren with Raikkonen, who won the Belgian Grand Prix this year.
"It's been four years with Williams. We had our ups, downs and everything," Montoya said.
The 29-year-old Colombian driver -- a former CART champion and Indy 500 winner -- has struggled in Grand Prix racing and has had a number of problems with Schumacher. He ran into Schumacher at the Monaco Grand Prix, leading to the German's only loss in the first 13 races.
Schumacher, who started 18th after receiving a 10-place penalty for changing engines following a practice-session crash, never was in contention in the 71-lap event.
A light rain halted almost immediately after the start, prompting a parade into the pits over the first few laps for teams to change to dry weather tires. Schumacher, Formula One's best rain driver, said he would have done better if the rain had been as heavy as it was just before the race started instead of letting up and turning into intermittent drizzle.
"I was thinking there was an opportunity," he said.
But he insisted that he did not feel let down with his performance in the last race.
"It's still been a fantastic season, there's no reason to feel disappointed," Schumacher said.
Montoya took the lead on Lap 18, after the first round of regular pit stops, and held it following the second round, with Raikkonen and Barrichello in second and third. By the 55th lap, Montoya was a second ahead of Raikkonen and maintained the advantage over the final 16 laps.