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NASCAR contenders struggle to hang on

HAMPTON, Ga. -- On a grim day for most of NASCAR's championship contenders, Jimmie Johnson took his third straight checkered flag.

Johnson held off Mark Martin's dominating car to win yesterday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, easing some of the pain after the tragedy that struck Hendrick Motorsports last weekend.

Martin had the best car in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, his Ford leading 227 of the 325 laps. But a late yellow flag cost him the top spot, and the 45-year-old driver and four-time series runner-up couldn't chase down Johnson at the end.

Johnson beat Martin by .293 seconds -- about 5 car lengths -- to become the first driver in six years to win three straight races.

"The No. 6 car was coming, but I had 10 angels riding along," Johnson said. "I feel bad for Mark. He had the dominant car. But things happen for a reason."

Johnson jumped two places to second in the Nextel Cup standings, just 59 points behind Kurt Busch. The final three races should be quite a shootout -- Jeff Gordon, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all within 98 points of the lead.

Busch was long gone by the time Johnson took the checkered flag. The points leader blew an engine on Lap 52, pulling into the garage with smoke billowing from his Ford.

But Busch managed to keep his points lead when six others in the 10-driver playoff ran into major problems, too. Matt Kenseth, the defending champion, blew an engine and finished 41st, one spot ahead of Busch. Elliott Sadler was 36th after a collision in the pits messed up his steering. Gordon battled an ill-handling car, had to duck into the garage to fix another problem and wound up 34th.

Jeremy Mayfield cut a tire in the early going, scraped the wall and had to battle just to finish 26th. Pole-sitter Ryan Newman was leading when a mistake in the pits forced him to come back in; he wound up two laps down in 17th.

Finally, Earnhardt was in position to seize the season lead when he clipped Carl Edwards on the backstretch and slammed into the inside wall with just 15 laps to go. Earnhardt's heavily damaged car couldn't finish, leaving him in 33d for the second week in a row.

But no one seemed upset about a Hendrick driver winding up in Victory Lane.

A team plane crashed while heading to last week's race at Martinsville, Va., killing all 10 people aboard. Among the victims were the son and brother of owner Rick Hendrick, along with the team's general manager and chief engine builder. Edwards was third, the best finish of his young career.

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