Jimmie Johnson didn't have the strongest car at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he raced it with the conviction that he had 10 angels with him.
Determined to honor them, Johnson roared to an emotional victory in Sunday's NASCAR Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, charging past leader Mark Martin with a gutsy late-race move and holding off the veteran's charge. Then he spun his Chevrolet around after crossing the finish line to retrieve the checkered flag that had signaled his victory -- the most fitting gift, he felt, to present to car owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his only son, younger brother and twin nieces in a plane crash one week ago.
"It doesn't change anything, and we don't get back our friends that we lost," Johnson said in Victory Lane. "But it sure makes all of us feel better to be able to do something like this."
Johnson was joined in Victory Lane by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates and their crews, who had returned to racing on Friday still reeling from the loss, having spent Wednesday and Thursday attending services for the race team's president, John Hendrick; chief engine builder Randy Dorton; heir apparent, Ricky Hendrick, 24; and others. At the request of their grieving owner, who spoke to Johnson by cell phone before the driver climbed out of his winning car, all four drivers turned their caps backward in tribute to the son he called "Little Ricky."
"He was very emotional -- very happy," Johnson said of Hendrick, who did not attend the race. "From a man who always yelled at his son for wearing his hat backwards and told him, 'Ricky, what are you doing? That's not professional! Turn your hat around straight!' -- for Rick to say that, it put a smile on my face."
It was Johnson's third consecutive victory and vaults him to second in the standings for NASCAR's 2004 championship with three races remaining. Martin finished second, followed by Carl Edwards.
As the Hendrick drivers -- Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers -- celebrated through their tears, NASCAR statisticians scrambled to sort out the standings after the race, in which five of the 10 drivers in contention for the Nextel Cup saw their prospects spoiled by engine failures, crashes and mechanical woes.
The driver who suffered the worst fate -- points leader Kurt Busch, whose engine blew on Lap 51 of the 325-lap event -- was damaged least. Busch finished 42nd in the 43-car field but held onto the points lead because his closest rivals, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., had their own miserable luck.
Gordon fought an ill-handling car from the start. Then its transmission failed, forcing him into the garage for repairs. He returned to the track 25 laps down and finished 34th.
Earnhardt appeared headed for a strong finish -- one that could have vaulted him to the top of the standings -- but misjudged a thicket of traffic on the backstretch of the 1.54-mile superspeedway. With 14 laps to go, he moved high and into Edwards's path, snagged his right rear on the snout of Edwards's Ford, spun and slammed into the wall. He finished 33rd for the second consecutive week and dropped from third to fifth in the standings.
Blaming himself for the blunder, Earnhardt conceded that his strong suit wasn't racing conservatively. "We came here to win the race, and that is what I was trying to do," he said. "We could have gained a lot of points, and that would have been nice, but it's hard to race like that for me."
The result turned what had been a three-man battle for the championship into a five-man battle. Busch holds a 59-point lead over Johnson. Gordon trails by 72 points; Martin by 81; and Earnhardt Jr. by 98. The most a driver can earn in a single race is 185.
A crowd estimated at 104,000 packed the stands for the race, which was laden with tributes to those who died in the crash en route to the previous week's race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Flags flew at half staff, and a black ribbon with 10 stars -- each symbolizing a life lost -- was painted on the front stretch grass. The Hendrick racecars carried decals on the hoods with an image of each of the victims and the phrase, "Always in Our Hearts." After the pre-race prayer, a moment of silence was observed.
Pole-sitter Ryan Newman set a blistering early pace but ceded the lead on a green-flag pit stop, worried about a loose lug nut. Busch's engine erupted soon after, belching smoke and spewing oil. Fans cheered as it limped into the garage. "Bummer luck," Busch said.
Martin took the lead on Lap 75 and appeared fully in charge, leading 227 of the 335 laps. As each fell out, Johnson edged closer to the front. He made his move entering Turn 3 on Lap 310, helped by the fact that Martin got momentarily blocked by his Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle. Once Johnson was in charge, he never looked back.
"I definitely think this is some type of medication, in a weird way, and will help the healing process," Johnson said. "I think today, no matter if you were of fan of the 48 [Johnson], the 8 [Earnhardt], the 20 [Tony Stewart], the 12 [Newman] -- whoever -- people respected what happened today. And it put a smile on the face of all the families involved. That is a start for all of us."