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Hendrick tragedy still casts a pall over Martinsville race

Photo: Jim R. Bounds/AP

Rick Hendrick relishes winning at Martinsville to honor family and friends who died in 2004 plane crash.

Nine years. It was nine years ago Thursday that a private plane crashed into fog-shrouded Bull Mountain in southern Virginia. Nine years since the worst tragedy in NASCAR history took place. Nine years since the life of Rick Hendrick, one of the most powerful men in the sport, was shattered.

On Oct. 24, 2004, a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 aircraft, which was owned by Hendrick Motorsports, went down as it traveled on a Sunday morning from Concord, N.C., to a landing strip near Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. All 10 aboard perished, including Rick Hendrick's son Ricky, his brother John, and his nieces Kimberly and Jennifer. After a lengthy investigation, the NTSB determined the likely cause of the crash was pilot error.

So now Martinsville has become an almost hallowed place for everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. I've spent a lot of time with Hendrick over the years -- I wrote a feature on Hendrick in the magazine on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy -- and when he speaks of Martinsville, his eyes often will moisten and his voice will fall to a near whisper. "It's hard to describe the emotions I feel every time I go back to Martinsville," Hendrick has told me. "There will always be sadness, but at the same time, I always want to win there to honor everyone on that plane."

And Hendrick has done just that. The day the plane fell from the sky nine years ago, Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag at the .526-mile paperclip-shaped track. Since then, Hendrick drivers have won nine of the 17 Sprint Cup starts at NASCAR's smallest venue. That's not a coincidence. Because at Hendrick Motorsports, reaching Victory Lane at Martinsville is perhaps even more important than winning the Daytona 500, so the organization devotes as much manpower and resources into preparing for the races at the tiny track in southern Virginia as any other team in NASCAR.

My pick to reach Victory Lane on Sunday at Martinsville, in the sixth race of the 2013 Chase, is Johnson, who has won the last two Cup races there. I wrote about Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who is second in the standings, earlier this week. Kenseth's mission for Sunday is clear: Simply stay as close as possible to Johnson and then try to beat him next week at Texas, where Kenseth should have the edge over the five-time champion.

Here are five drivers to watch at Martinsville not named Johnson or Kenseth:

1. Jeff Gordon

Gordon has put together a solid Chase. He's finished seventh or better in four of the six races and he hasn't been lower than 15th in any of the playoff starts. In most years these results would put Gordon in the thick of the championship hunt, but not this season, not with the way Johnson and Kenseth have performed over the first six weeks of the playoffs.

If Gordon, currently fifth in the standings, is going win a race in the Chase, it likely will be on Sunday. In his Hall of Fame career, he has more career wins at Martinsville (seven) than at any other track (he also has seven victories at Darlington). He's led at least 36 laps at Martinsville in 13 of his last 14 starts and he finished third here in the spring. Add it up and there's little reason to believe Gordon won't be among the leaders as the laps wind down Sunday.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt's Chase couldn't have gotten off to a worse start. After blowing an engine in the playoff opener at Chicago and finishing 35th, his shot at winning his first title essentially was over.

But give NASCAR's most popular driver credit: since then Earnhardt has been as fast as any driver in the field other than Johnson and Kenseth. He's finished second twice (at Dover and Talladega) and has risen to sixth in the standings. The what-if game is a cruel one, but Earnhardt and his No. 88 team will have the entire offseason to wonder what might have been if not for the engine failure in Chicago.

Statistically, Martinsville is Earnhardt's third best track on the circuit. His career average finish here is 13.4, which only trails his averages at Bristol (11.5) and Atlanta (12.3). Even though he's never won at Martinsville in 27 Cup starts, Earnhardt does have 10 top-five finishes.

Ricky Hendrick was one of Earnhardt's closest friends. It was Ricky, in fact, who first suggested to his father that he should try to sign Earnhardt. So a win on Sunday would be special for the driver of the No. 88 Chevy.

3. Kevin Harvick

As he winds up his career at Richard Childress Racing -- he is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason -- Harvick has a chance to finish third in the standings for the third time in his career. He's currently tied with Kyle Busch for third, 26 points behind Johnson.

In 24 starts at Martinsville, Harvick has one win and 10 top-10 finishes. He can be a bully on the track, and that usually serves him well in the cramped confines of Martinsville, where the racing often becomes a game of bumper cars. Harvick's MO here is to ride in the middle of the pack for most of the race, work on his car during pit stops, then make a charge late.

4. Kyle Busch

Even though he won't win his first title this fall, this has been a good Chase for Busch. In the past Busch, who is widely considered in the garage to possess the most natural talent of any driver in the sport, has struggled in the playoffs. In his previous four Chases, his average finish was ninth. But now if he can outduel Harvick, he'll likely finish a career-best third in the standings.

What's changed? He appears more patient, more tempered, more calculating, and is displaying more smarts behind the wheel. It could be that, at 28, he's maturing before our eyes.

Busch finished second in this race last year. Expect him to contend again on Sunday.

5. Danica Patrick

No, Patrick will not win on Sunday and she may not even finish on the lead lap. But in her last start at Martinsville she came in 12th, which was arguably more impressive than her eighth-place performance in the Daytona 500. Why? Because at Daytona, the quality of the car typically is more important than the driver; at Martinsville, the skill of the driver is more essential to winning.

Everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing just wants to see improvement out Patrick when she visits tracks a second time in her rookie season. It won't be easy for her to top her 12th place run in the fall at Martinsville, but if she does, it would be tangible proof that Patrick, currently 28th in the standings, is slowly gaining speed.

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