What should be a joyful and hopeful time for Jimmie Johnson has been bittersweet.
Although Johnson has won three consecutive 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 today’s Checker Auto Parts 500 in Avondale, Ariz., with a chance to become the first NASCAR driver since teammate Jeff Gordon in 1998 to win four consecutive races.
And Johnson trails series leader Kurt Busch by only 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.
Four-time Cup champion Gordon is third in the points standings, followed by Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jamie McMurray beat Kyle Busch on Saturday, winning the NASCAR Busch Series race at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale.
They swapped the lead twice in the final 27 laps. But McMurray used an outside pass on a restart 10 laps from the scheduled finish to grab the lead from Busch for the final time in the Bashas’ Supermarket 200.
Busch led 151 of the first 190 laps.
Champ Car points leader Sebastian Bourdais broke teammate Bruno Junqueira’s Mexican Grand Prix qualifying record and won the pole for the season finale in Mexico City.
Bourdais’ time of 1 minute, 25.919 seconds topped Junqueira’s 2-year-old track record of 1:25.941.
The Newman-Haas teammates will share the front row for the race because Junqueira led the qualifying Friday.