HAMPTON, Ga. — Denny Hamlin won his second straight Sprint Cup race, holding off Jeff Gordon in a green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
Martin Truex Jr. appeared to be positioned for his first win since 2007 until Jamie McMurray smashed the wall on the front straightaway, bringing out a caution with three laps to go. The leaders went to pit road, and Hamlin’s crew got him back on the track first, just ahead of Truex.
While Truex struggled to get up to speed on the restart, Hamlin pulled away with Gordon right on his bumper. The four-time Cup champion desperately needed a win to improve his chances of getting into the Chase, but couldn’t get by Hamlin on the final lap.
Hamlin took his series-leading fourth victory, putting him in position to top the standings when the 12-driver Chase starts after next weekend’s race at Richmond.
“I wanted this one real bad,” said Hamlin, the winner last week at Bristol. “The car faded a little bit, but the pit crew won me that race. That’s what a championship team is all about. This year, I think we have it all.”
Brad Keselowski finished third, and Truex faded to fourth.
Along with Hamlin, eight other drivers have locked up their spot in the Chase based on points: Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Truex, Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. Defending Cup champion Tony Stewart, who has three wins this season, is assured of at least a wild card.
Gordon was kicking himself for failing to pull off the pass on Hamlin, saying he was too tentative going into turn three. Now, he’ll likely have to win at Richmond to claim a wild card.
“I guess I’m getting soft in my old age,” Gordon quipped.
It was another tough night for last year’s Cup runner-up, Carl Edwards, who came in desperately needing a win to lock up a spot in the Chase. The No. 99 car started smoking on lap 264, apparently from a blown piston. He was done for the night, a devastating blow to his chances.
Edwards lost the 2011 championship to Stewart on a tiebreaker in the final race of the season. Now, he’s got to win next week at Richmond — and even that may not be enough to get him into the playoff.
The race was uneventful most of the night. Kyle Busch dominated early on. Then it was Harvick surging to the front, before Hamlin took at extended turn leading the field. At the end, it looked like Truex would make it to victory lane — until that final caution came out.
The first big wreck occurred on lap 269, when Sam Hornish Jr. and Ryan Newman got pinched by Johnson on the backstretch after a restart. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet spun head-first into the wall, leaving Newman with nowhere to go. They were both damaged beyond repair, while Hornish managed to keep going in his banged-up car.
“It looks like the 48 just ran everybody out of room,” Newman said.