MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) - Jimmie Johnson doesn’t dwell on the negatives when he thinks about himself or his Hendrick Motorsports team when it comes to Martinsville Speedway, and that’s more than understandable. He has won eight times at the track in 24 career starts.
The first of them, however, was hardly a day for celebration.
It was Oct. 24, 2004, the day a plane carrying 10 members of the Hendrick Motorsports family on their way to the race crashed in fog-shrouded mountains a few miles from the speedway. No one survived and so when Johnson prepares to return to NASCAR’s smallest track, his thoughts drift in many directions.
“Like today,” he said. “I flew up. It’s overcast. It’s cloudy. The whole week leading into Martinsville, I’ve been excited about coming here to race and feel like we have a great chance to win. I wake up this morning and it’s overcast, and I just can’t help but think of the airplane incident.”
Among those lost in the crash were Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick Hendrick, and John Hendrick, the owner’s brother.
Johnson and the other team members didn’t know of the crash until the race was over.
“I look back on that day a lot and think about how things went down,” Johnson said. “NASCAR called all four cars to pit lane. We get to pit lane, and there are police officers standing around our cars, and I’m like ‘What in the world has happened?’ Normally there are NASCAR Officials, not police officers.
“I walk through that from time to time. I hope to never ever go through anything like that again.”
Thankfully for Johnson and the Hendrick organization, there are also many great memories of the 0.526-mile oval. Johnson has added seven more victories on the track, teammate Jeff Gordon also has won eight times and Geoff Bodine gave the fledgling team its first victory on the paper clip 30 years ago.
It all makes the oldest track in NASCAR’s top series an emotional stop no matter what.
Hendrick’s teams have won 20 more Sprint Cup races at Martinsville since Bodine got the first one.
“To see Rick and his face and the expression that he has and you can sense in his voice and in his eyes - you can see how much it means to him to win here,” Johnson said. “It is a cool, amazing experience to go through. … With all the emotion that you have here, I think we are in a good place here.”
Five more things to watch in NASCAR’s sixth race of the season:
REPEAT AFTER ME: Through five races, there have been five different winners.
Through six qualifying sessions, there have been six different pole-sitters.