Rain pelts Tony Stewart's crewmen in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
By Mike Mulhern
One fan was killed, one was in critical condition, and eight more were being treated at area hospitals in what was a calamitous ending to Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway.
The fans were hit in two different locations by two different strikes just moments after the end of the rain-shortened race.
No names or further information was immediately available.
The vicious thunderstorm that ended the race was the second of the afternoon. The first had delayed the start two hours. The second, which sat on the edge of the track for quite a while before rolling through, had drivers scrambling toward the finish, with a final restart on lap 92 of the scheduled 160-lapper at this huge 2.5-mile track. That restart came just minutes after Kurt Busch hit the wall hard in the second turn.
Severe weather warnings were in effect as the race wound toward the climax.
The tragedy threw the event into turmoil post-race, as the infield garage flooded amid general chaos.
Up till then Jimmie Johnson again was almost untouchable in the race, just as he was at Indianapolis last weekend.
But this time something happened in the final moments of the 400 -- shortened to less than 250 miles because of the violent, lightning-filled thunderstorm. Johnson lost what appeared a certain victory ,and it was not entirely clear just why he triggered the race-ending crash.
The finish was chaotic in many ways, with half a dozen ambulances dealing with the casualties, while winner Jeff Gordon was celebrating, and while Matt Kenseth was questioning just what Johnson was really doing on what wound up being the final restart.
All Johnson had to do -- on what would almost clearly be the final restart of the day, with rain at the very edge of Pocono Raceway -- was hold Kenseth at bay for a mile or till the one-groove tunnel turn and the race -- victory number four of the year -- would have been his.
Instead Johnson triggered a huge crash. He said it was a flat tire. But Kenseth disputed that, saying Johnson just drove into the first turn very deep and lost control.
Jimmie Johnson was in command right till the very end (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gordon wasn't the only one stunned by the finish.
"For all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, I still can't believe what just happened," Gordon said.
"But I think this is the one that makes up for all the ones that have gotten away."
The win was Gordon's first since last September, and this win may be the one that puts Gordon into this fall's championship playoffs, which at the start of the day, and right till the final minutes, appeared to be a vanishing hope.
But Gordon wasn't pinning it all on just good luck for a change.
"To start 27th and only have one caution, and work our way all the way up there like that, is pretty awesome," Gordon said.
"We got a great restart, got into that inside lane ahead of Kasey (Kahne)... and then I saw Jimmie get sideways.
"And somehow I just came out on the other end of it leading.
"I know you don't want to win them quite like this, but we've earned it, because of all the things we've done this year. We've been in position to win races...and this time we were at the right place at the right time.
"It's just an amazing day. I said to Alan Gustafson (his crew chief) 'Miracles do happen.'"
In one of the day's oddities Gordon never even led a lap under green. NASCAR ruled him the leader at the yellow when Johnson crashed.
"You start to lose confidence, and doubt whether it's going to happen," Gordon conceded, of his long losing streak. "Our cars have been good, and our team has been good. We just needed some things to go our way.
"And, boy, did they go our way today.
"I hate that those guys got caught up in that spin and wreck, or whatever happened there. It was slick on those restarts."
Team owner Rick Hendrick, at the start of the season, said his goal was for all four teams to make the title chase. But Gordon, until this win, appeared to be the odd man out.
Now, though, it looks like all four Hendrick drivers -- Johnson, Gordon, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- will make the chase, which kicks off in five weeks in Chicago.
"We had a lot of pressure on us," Gordon said.
"I felt a lot of pressure.
"This is a great moment; we needed this. And it's awesome."
The win was Gordon's 86th since joining the tour in 1992. Only Richard Petty and David Pearson have won more.
However Gordon at 41 may relish this win more for the fact that it puts him, most likely, in the playoffs next month.
Not everyone was happy at the finish, or even sure about the final scoring.
Kevin Harvick was one who raised questions.
And NASCAR did make some minor revisions after reviewing video of the final moments.
Greg Biffle was particularly displeased: "Jimmie just spun out.... I never even slowed down.
"I went up, kissed the fence, shifted down, and was digging like hell.
"I had to wait for Matt (Kenseth) to cross in front of me, and watched him take Denny Hamlin out. Then I went... and they put me all the way back to 16th. There is no way. No way."
Biffle wound up being scored 15th, just behind Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s run atop the Sprint Cup standings appeared to be coming to an end when his transmission broke early in the Pennsylvania 400. But that last minute crash knocked Matt Kenseth off the top. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)