By Andrew Charman

Jimmie Johnson's late season revival continued with a second win in two weeks at Martinsville, but his joy was short-lived when he learnt of a plane crash that claimed the lives of 10 members of the Hendrick Motorsport team including Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick.

Martinsville proved a frustrating race in which the pace car led the most laps, 125 of the 500 run under yellow flags. But the result left Kurt Busch looking increasingly like this year's Nextel Cup champion, taking fifth on a day when all his closest contenders struggled.

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The repaved surface at the paperclip-shaped half-mile Martinsville Speedway saw Ryan Newman set a record 97mph lap in qualifying, and the #12 ALLTEL Dodge led the first lap of 500 around a track where the cautions were expected often. The yellow duly flew at the end of lap one as Joe Nemechek's #1 US Army Chevrolet was pitched into a spin, everyone bouncing off each other around him.

Back to green on lap 8, Newman headed team-mate Rusty Wallace in the #2 Miller Lite Dodge and 41 others strung out in a line around three-quarters of the track. Wallace, winner of the April Martinsville race, was clearly quick, and as Newman moved wide the Miller Dodge gladly assumed the lead. Ward Burton's #0 Netzero Highspeed Chevrolet followed through, while coming fast were the leading two chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr's #8 Budweiser Chevrolet heading Kurt Busch in the #97 Irwin Ford. Initially keeping them company was the impressively quick #06 Mobil 1/Jasper Engines Dodge of Travis Kvapil, who Penske Racing had only put in the car on Tuesday for his first Nextel Cup start following rapid pace in testing.

The yellow flew again on lap 16 as Brendan Gaughan spun and Sterling Marlin's #40 Coors Light Dodge hit the #77 Kodak version. At the green on lap 23 Wallace headed Burton and Newman, and within 10 laps both Earnhardt and Busch had demoted the #12 car. Meanwhile the third of the title contenders, Jeff Gordon, was struggling in 17th, unhappy with the handling of his #24 Dupont Chevrolet.

Ricky Rudd brought out the third yellow on lap 40, the #21 Motorcraft Ford spinning out of eighth after being tagged by Jeff Green's #43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge. All but five cars headed for pit road, and Wallace lost out, coming out behind six other cars led by Ward Burton.

Non-pitter Terry Labonte's #5 Kelloggs Chevrolet that led the field back to green, only to be taken by Kasey Kahne, his #9 UAW/Dodge Dealers having led a lot of laps this year but still to win. Further back Earnhardt found himself on the outside with no way to get back to the low groove, dropping to 11th. Back in the pack, Rudd spun again without sparking a caution, but when Robby Gordon's #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet did the same a lap later the yellow flew and Kahne and Marlin both pitted.

Labonte stayed out to head the lap 72 restart only for Rudd to tap Robby Gordon into another spin bringing out the caution again. Still Labonte refused to pit while at the green on lap 84, Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet was quickly inside Busch for second, and within five laps took Labonte for the lead, forcing the Kelloggs Chevy wide and Busch and Newman taking advantage.

The yellow flew again on lap 106, as Matt Kenseth spun Dale Jarrett and Bobby Hamilton Jr's #32 Tide Chevrolet had nowhere to go, hitting the #88 UPS Ford in the side. Busch emerged quickest from pit road ahead of Stewart, Wallace and Earnhardt, but all lined up behind non-pitters Marlin, Jamie McMurray's #42 Havoline Dodge and Brian Vickers in the #25 GMAC Chevrolet.

At the green on lap 114 Busch moved inside Vickers, and stuck on the outside the #25 car plummeted down the field. Busch harried McMurray for second, almost spinning a couple of times before forcing a way through. Within five laps he had the lead, and five possibly vital extra points, Stewart and Wallace also demoting Labonte. Earnhardt sat in sixth while Jeff Gordon was still struggling in 23rd, saying his car was "the worst yet," and not looking like taking a sixth Martinsville win.

The race finally settled down to 69 laps of green-flag lappery before Kyle Petty was spun around to spark a by then welcome yellow, most drivers needing tyres and many wanting chassis changes. Busch was quickest off pit road while slowest by a long way was Gordon after the Dupont Chevrolet fell off the jack to compound the Hendrick squad's problems.

After an extended caution to clean tyre debris from the track the green flew on lap 203 with Busch leading Wallace, Rusty looking for his eighth Martinsville win. Coming quickly though was Kevin Harvick, moving the #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet into third as he searched for an antidote to two weeks of non-finishes. When Wallace got held up lapping Robby Gordon, Harvick slipped into second.

As the race reached halfway Busch lost the lead to Harvick, and 20 laps later the new leader put Gordon a lap down. Jeff didn't make it easy, Busch closing back in and following the Goodwrench Chevy through, Kurt no doubt pleased to see one of his main title rivals struggling so badly. But Gordon got the lap back through the 'lucky dog' rule on lap 292, when Earnhardt pushed Carl Edwards into a spin and brought out the yellow.

The resultant stops saw pit road a little too crowded and Labonte, Kahne and Jeff Green bouncing off each other, while Harvick retained the lead ahead of Busch and Wallace as they went back to racing on lap 298. Earnhardt quickly discovered his pit stop had done little good, the #8 car far too tight and on lap 314 falling behind Gordon for 20th place.

Yellow number eight was out on lap 322 as Scott Riggs' #10 Valvoline Chevrolet spun around, and this time everyone ignored pit road as another track cleaning session ensued. Everyone that is except Earnhardt, who made five stops for track bar adjustments. Harvick led back to green on lap 336 and the racing lasted 18 laps, until Bobby Labonte spun and tagged Ken Schrader, in the process Earnhardt pushing Green into the wall. Johnson beat Harvick out of pit road to line up behind McMurray, Marlin, Jeff Gordon, Edwards and Terry Labonte, who had all stayed out.

The restart on lap 361 saw Gordon quickly take second and chase after McMurray, Jeff looking hard for that five bonus points. But then Scott Wimmer 's #22 Caterpillar Dodge spun and out came caution 10. At the lap 378 restart the lapped Joe Nemechek refused to give McMurray the inside line, Gordon immediately snatching the lead and those five points. But the Dodge moved back ahead within three laps, Gordon then making way for his team-mate Johnson. Jimmie stalked McMurray and with the #42 car on much older tyres, the Lowe's Chevy led by lap 406.

Now the championship took a possibly crucial turn as Earnhardt hit pit road, complaining of brake trouble. As he exited, he tagged Jarrett into a spin, bringing out the caution. To Jeff Gordon's delight, almost everyone pitted for tyres, and the Dupont Chevy lined up for the lap 416 restart eighth. Marlin and Labonte, who had stayed out, led the way for a whole half lap before Earnhardt dumped part of his gearbox on the race track and headed for the garage where he would lose 13 laps.

At the lap 428 green Johnson quickly rounded Labonte, while further back title rivals Gordon and Busch got together, the #97 Ford almost spinning but staying ahead. As rain briefly threatened Martinsville Johnson got around Marlin for the lead, while coming fast was Wallace, taking second on lap 446 and chasing after Johnson. His task was made a lot easier when Elliott Sadler's #38 M&M's Ford spun, sparking the 13th caution.

Now no-one was going for tyres, and at the restart Johnson held off Wallace, while fastest now was Newman, taking Marlin for third and closing in on Wallace. But now the caution count hit a 2004 record as Kyle Petty spun and was hit by Earnhardt - who by now was likely wondering why he'd bothered to turn up...

They went green with 28 to go, Wallace closing down Johnson and Newman sitting close behind. But in the pack Nemechek spun and was clobbered hard by Sadler, Elliott having started the day fourth in the title chase...

Now there were just 16 to go, until Edwards and Robby Gordon spun in unison, to the frustration of all but Jimmie Johnson. This time he'd only have to hold on for seven laps, and his cause was helped when Rusty went to the outside, Newman stuck his nose in and half-spun the #2 Dodge. But Newman had problems too, the Dodge trailing ominous smoke, and with a lap left he was bumped out of second by McMurray, as Johnson took his sixth win of the season and his second in successive races. And the action continued after the flag as Wallace and Newman exchanged grievances, bouncing their cars of off each other. Busch was fifth, Gordon ninth, a good result on a frustrating day for Jeff, leaving him secure in second place 96 points down on Busch and 29 ahead of Earnhardt with four races left.

The race, however, finished on a low note, with victory lane celebrations and interviews cancelled after NASCAR revealed that a plane belonging to the winning Hendrick Motorsport squad had disappeared from radar screens on its way into Martinsville. Details of the tragedy unfolded throughout the evening, leaving NASCAR in mourning heading to the next race at Atlanta.