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Jimmie Johnson returns to scene of triumph, tragedy

Mar 28, 2014, 3:19 PM EDT

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Jimmie Johnson has won eight Sprint Cup races at Martinsville Speedway, so indeed, he has plenty of happy memories from NASCAR’s oldest track.

But he also has a very sad memory as well. During the 2004 fall race at Martinsville – a race Johnson won – NASCAR received word of a small plane crash on the side of a mountain nearby, involving multiple members of Hendrick Motorsports.

All 10 aboard the plane perished. Among the lost were four members of Rick Hendrick’s family – son Ricky, brother John, and nieces Kimberly and Jennifer.

As a result, Martinsville has become a very important place for the entire Hendrick Motorsports camp. And for Johnson, it’s led to mixed feelings about the place, feelings that often depend on, in his words, “what activates [his] mind.”

“Like today, 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 can’t help but think of the airplane incident,” he said today to reporters.

“It just kind of depends on what triggers the thought process.”

But while his feelings may shift whenever he’s at Martinsville, he recognizes that there’s a “deep pride” in winning there for HMS.

“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,” he said.

“It is a cool, amazing experience to go through. Rick is a very competitive guy and he likes to win races. But with all the emotion that you have here, I think we are in a good place here.”

As for the task at hand, Johnson conceded that it was a “real bummer” to lose out on what would’ve been his first win of the season last week at Fontana. Leading with seven laps to go, the left-front tire went down on his car and he was forced to settle for a mid-pack finish.

However, he did note that in years past, he hasn’t started winning races until around the midway point of a season.

“Statistically, I think the end of the year is where we heat up the most,” Johnson added. “So you know what? We have a good track here and Dover is coming up soon and there are a lot of big opportunities coming along, and with the new rules package that we have – I think that has allowed for the five different winners at five different tracks.

“It’s just a challenge right now to figure out what you need and what you want and it’s nice to see so much parity with different teams and drivers winning. I guess it would be nice if the Hendrick guys were walking away with it and we had won all the races, but there is a lot of parity out there.”

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