Jeff Gordon, right, and Jimmie Johnson talk in the garage area Saturday, Nov. 6, 2004, prior to the final practice for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz.
AP Photo/Craig Penders
AVONDALE, Ariz. What should be a joyful and hopeful time for Jimmie Johnson has instead been bittersweet.
While Johnson has won three straight races and moved back into contention for the Nextel Cup championship, he can't ignore the sadness that wells up each time he thinks about the friends he lost in the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane two weeks ago.
''It's been a weird experience to win races and to feel the emotional highs of winning and then the lowest of lows knowing we've lost our close friends and families,'' Johnson said.
He goes into Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 with a chance to become the first NASCAR driver since teammate Jeff Gordon in 1998 to win four straight races.
And Johnson trails series leader Kurt Busch by just 59 points with three races left in the season. Not bad for a driver who was 247 points behind before his winning streak began in Charlotte.
A week later, on Oct. 24, a plane crashed en route from Concord, N.C., to Martinsville Speedway, killing all 10 people on board. Among them were the son, brother and two nieces of team owner Rick Hendrick, as well as the team's general manager and chief engine builder.
None of the Hendrick drivers were told about the crash until after the race; Johnson skipped Victory Lane ceremonies. Last Sunday, he won again at Atlanta and was greeted in Victory Lane by teammates Gordon, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers and most of their crewmen for an emotional, if muted, celebration.
''I hope I don't have to go through it again. It's really been a tough few weeks,'' Johnson said.
Even with his string of wins, Johnson would not be within striking distance of the lead except for the first slip by Busch since NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Cup championship began.
Through the first six races of the playoff-style format, Busch finished no worse than sixth. But an engine failure at Atlanta relegated the leader to 42nd and, suddenly, five drivers are within 98 points of the top spot.
Four-time Cup champion Gordon is third, followed by four-time series runner-up Mark Martin and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is also the defending race champion on Phoenix International Raceway's one-mile oval.
Busch says he isn't worried, though.
''It's much easier to be the points leader,'' he said. ''After three wins in a row by Jimmie and our failure to finish at Atlanta, we still have a 59-point advantage. He and the rest of those guys still have a lot of work to do.''
''For us to win (the championship), or have an opportunity to win, we need to win one or two of these races convincingly,'' he said.
Noting that leading a lap earns a five-point bonus and leading the most laps in a race adds another five points, Earnhardt added, ''We need to lead a lot of laps, lead in all three races. If we can finish in the top three in these last three races, I would consider that the best we could have put forth.''
Earnhardt could have been closer to Busch if he hadn't gotten into a late-race crash last Sunday with rookie Carl Edwards as the two battled for third place. Junior wound up 33rd.
''If I could go back and do it again, I'm sure me and Carl would both have different ways we'd want it to end out,'' Earnhardt said. ''But it wasn't his fault. We were racing hard and should have been racing maybe not so hard.
''I was just doing what I thought I needed to do and got myself in trouble there.''
Earnhardt remains confident he can catch Busch, but he isn't planning to spend a lot of time studying possible championship scenarios.
''I've been around,'' said Junior, the son of a seven-time Cup champion. ''Shoot, I watched Daddy deal with championships and I've counted points a million times for him. That just wears you out. It's not much fun.''
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