By Anthony Rhoads
Going into this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports drivers wanted to turn a tragedy into a triumph.
In Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, they got their wish as Jimmie Johnson won his third race in a row, one week after a plane crash claimed the lives of 10 team members and family near Martinsville, Va.
"It doesn't change anything and we don't get back our friends that we lost but it sure makes all of us feel a little better to do something like this," Johnson said. "This is unbelievable. I don't even know what to say. I don't even know where to start. As I am sure you can imagine, I am at a loss for words. I just want to thank everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, (crew chief) Chad Knaus, all my crew guys for being able to bounce back after such a difficult week."
Johnson's teammates, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers, joined him in victory lane for a bittersweet celebration.
"I'm so proud of Jimmy and his team for coming back after such a tough week, it's awesome," Labonte said.
The victory was a cathartic experience for the Hendrick guys, especially Brian Vickers, the 21-year-old Nextel Cup rookie.
In a press conference Friday, Vickers was so devastated by the plane crash that he wasn't able to field any questions from the media and barely got through a brief statement. That began to change a little bit Sunday afternoon as a smile crept across young driver's face as he and his teammates enjoyed a subdued celebration.
"I'm so proud of the organization," Brian Vickers said. "We all wanted to win. I can't say enough about organization. It's a great win."
Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus said the team had a little extra help in Sunday's victory.
"This has been the hardest week of my life," Knaus said. "We did it for (team owner Rick Hendrick) and the rest of the Hendrick family. Randy Dorton, (the engine builder who was killed in the wreck Sunday); it's not just his engine that was under the hood today. The No. 6 car (driven by Mark Martin) was awesome but I had 10 angels riding on this racecar."
Johnson had to fight hard to get the victory as Mark Martin dominated much of the race.
Martin led 227 laps but lost the lead after coming in for a pit stop with just 15 laps to go.
"We had a great car today and a great effort by our team," Martin said. "I don't think there was any real failure on any of our parts. The competition knew that the way they were gonna win was try to get us caught in a box, so with only nine cars or something like that on the lead lap when that last caution came out, gosh, I didn't think we had hardly any laps at all."
Martin's Roush Racing teammate Carl Edwards finished third.
He had a near miss with 15 laps to go when he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. bumped. The contact knocked Earnhardt Jr. out of the race but Edwards was able to maintain control of his car.
"We were just racing hard," Edwards said. "I feel terrible for them. They ran great all day. He's a great guy and it wasn't intentional at all."
Rounding out the top 10 Sunday were Joe Nemechek, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle.
It wasn't a great day for most of the drivers in the Chase of the Nextel Cup Championship.
Five of the drivers in the Chase finished 33rd or worse, including Earnhardt Jr. in 33rd, Gordon in 34th, Elliott Sadler in 36th, Matt Kenseth in 41st and Kurt Busch in 42nd.