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.
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.