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Johnson: 'I had 10 angels riding along'

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jimmie Johnson usually smokes his tires to
celebrate a victory. Not this time.

Instead, he drove back to the finish line to pick up the
checkered flag.

A little something to ease the pain.

Johnson became the first driver since 1998 to win three straight
races in a season, holding off Mark Martin on Sunday for a poignant
victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Last week, Johnson did a burnout after winning at Martinsville,
but he never made it to Victory Lane. A plane carrying 10 people --
many of the key members of Hendrick Motorsports -- had crashed on
its way to the race.

Johnson didn't learn of the crash until afterward. The
celebration was called off, replaced by mourning.

When Johnson got to Atlanta, he couldn't think of a better way
to honor the victims than by winning the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.
But he had to beat Martin, who clearly had the strongest car on the
track.

"With five (laps) to go, the butterflies hit me,'' Johnson
said. "I don't think I took five breaths the rest of the way. I
didn't even want to look in the mirror, but I knew I had to because
Mark was back there.''

Martin led 227 of the 325 laps, while Johnson was out front for
only 17. But he led the one that counted, comfortably beating
Martin to the line by 0.293 seconds.

Seven of the 10 championship contenders had major problems,
including points leader Kurt Busch. He blew an engine and finished
next-to-last, but stayed on top in the points.

Johnson jumped two places to second, only 59 points behind. He
also became the first driver with three straight victories in a
season since teammate Jeff Gordon won four in a row in 1998.

"The No. 6 car was coming, but I had 10 angels riding along,''
Johnson said. "I feel bad for Mark. He had the dominant car. But
things happen for a reason.''

Johnson pulled his winning car up to the flagstand, picking up
the checkered banner. Then, with it flapping out the driver's side,
he circled the 1.54-mile trioval in reverse, soaking up the cheers
of everyone in the crowd -- even those wearing the colors of rival
drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Typically, I would have been booed,'' Johnson said, managing a
smile. "There's a lot red up there. They don't like blue. That's
cool.

"But all I could see today was people on the fence who were
happy to see what took place.''

When Johnson finally got to the winner's circle, he made a quick
cell phone call to team owner Rick Hendrick, who'll be getting the
checkered flag.

Hendrick asked everyone on the team to wear their hats backward
-- a tribute to the fashion sense of Hendrick's son.

Ricky Hendrick, who died in the crash, was being groomed to take
over the team. Three other family members were killed, along with
the team's general manager and chief engine builder. Rick
Hendrick's brother, John, was the team president.

"Rick always yelled at his son for wearing his hat backward,''
Johnson said, managing a smile.

The final three races should be quite a shootout -- Johnson,
Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt are all within 98 points of Busch, who
only had one driver that close to him coming into Sunday.

Busch was long gone by the time Johnson took the checkered flag.
The Ford blew its engine on lap 52, sending it to the garage with
smoke billowing.

There was no chance of repairing the car. The crew loaded it
into the hauler and settled for a next-to-last place finish,
throwing the championship race wide open.

"I had a feeling in my stomach before the race,'' said Busch,
who had not finished lower than sixth in the first six races of the
Nextel Cup playoff. "It was just one of those gut feelings where
you don't feel as confident as the week before.''

But Busch wasn't the only one having problems.

Matt Kenseth, the defending Cup champion, blew an engine and
finished 41st, one spot ahead of Busch. Elliott Sadler was 36th
after a collision in the pits messed up his steering. Gordon
battled an ill-handling car, had to duck into the garage to fix
another problem and wound up 34th.

That's not all. Jeremy Mayfield cut a tire in the early going,
scraped the wall and had to battle just to finish 26th. Pole sitter
Ryan Newman was leading early when a mistake in the pits forced him
to come back in; he wound up two laps down in 17th.

Finally, Earnhardt was in position to seize the season lead when
he clipped Carl Edwards on the backstretch and slammed into the
inside wall with just 15 laps to go. Junior's heavily damaged car
couldn't finish, leaving him in 33rd for the second week in a row.

"I was just trying to win the race,'' Earnhardt said. "We
could have gained a lot of points. That would have been nice.''

Martin, a four-time series runner-up, yearns to win a
championship before calling it a career. The Roush Racing driver
has already announced that 2005 will be his final full season.

The 45-year-old Martin probably would have won on this day if
not for two late yellow flags. He stayed on the track when Kevin
Harvick stalled, while everyone else in the lead pack ducked into
the pits for fresh tires.

That made the difference for Johnson, whose Chevrolet claimed
the lead on lap 310. Everyone came in when Earnhardt crashed, but
Johnson already had gained valuable track position on Martin.

Johnson reclaimed the lead from Casey Kahne with 10 laps to go
and built up enough of a margin to fend off Martin.

"We were a sitting duck,'' said Martin, defending crew chief
Pat Tryson. "If we pitted, they stay out and win. If we stay out,
they pit. So it was nobody's fault but those caution flags.''

Edwards was third, the best finish of his young career. Joe
Nemechek was fourth and Kahne held on for fifth.

With a little less pain in his heart, Johnson can't wait for the
final three races.

"It's going to be excitement all the way to the end,'' he said.
"If we're fortunate enough to be in the lead, I hope it's not till
the very end. There's a burden that comes with being No. 1.''

Busch can vouch for that.