HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — While Denny Hamlin whooped it up in Victory Lane for the second week in a row, Jeff Gordon lamented one that got away.
It might just cost the four-time champion a shot at winning his fifth title.
Taking advantage of a late yellow flag, Hamlin got a boost from his pit crew and held off Gordon in a green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
Gordon, like a number of drivers in the race, desperately needed a win to boost his chances of getting into the NASCAR playoff.
He was right on Hamlin's bumper heading into the turn three, right where he needed to be to pull off a dramatic pass for the win. But Gordon didn't stick close enough to the leader to make his car a bit wobbly. Instead, it was the No. 24 car that drifted up the banking, allowing Hamlin to pull away for the victory by a couple of car lengths.
"I guess I'm getting soft in my old age," the 41-year-old Gordon said. "I'm too nice. Fifteen years ago, Ii would have just moved him right up the racetrack. I don't know why I didn't do that."
With a win, Gordon would have been in a strong position to claim a wild card into the Chase. Now, in all likelihood, he has to win next weekend's race at Richmond to advance to the 12-driver playoff.
Either that, or make up a daunting 12-point deficit on Kyle Busch, the guy right ahead of him in the standings.
"It's going to be intense," Gordon said. "Don't get in front of me on that last lap."
Ten drivers have locked up their spot in the Chase, and Kasey Kahne is well positioned to take one of the wild cards (two wins this season, 11th in the points). That leaves Busch, Gordon and three other drivers with a win this season — Marcus Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano — essentially fighting for one spot.
"I've been a part of it where I've either been trying to get in like this, or trying to stay in the Chase," Gordon said. "There's so much on the line, trying to win the race. That race is always intense. But when you look at how many guys have to win the points and everything else, it's going to be a pretty crazy night."
After a largely uneventful race, all sorts of subplots developed on the harried dash to the finish.
Coming off a win at Bristol, Hamlin knew a series-leading fourth victory of the season would put him in position to be the top seed after Richmond. Also on his mind was keeping Gordon from getting to the line first, which would have severely damaged the hopes of Busch and Logano, Hamlin's teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to get as many (Gibbs) cars in there because it helps me," Hamlin said. "We need Kyle in there, we need Joey in there, and if Jeff won that race, it was going to be all over. We had to do what we had to do."
Martin Truex Jr. appeared to be positioned for his first win since 2007 until Jamie McMurray smashed into 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. It was still that way when the checkered flag waved, the margin of victory 0.378 seconds.
"I wanted this one real bad," Hamlin said. "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, while Truex faded to fourth. He had struggled all night on restarts, usually needing about five laps to get up to speed. In a desperate bid to stay with Hamlin, he spun his tires when the green flag waved.
"I sure didn't want to see that caution," said Truex, who has gone 192 races since his only Cup win at Dover five years ago. "We had it covered. Such is life. That seems to be my kind of luck when we're leading."
Along with Hamlin, eight other drivers have locked up a 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.
Among those in desperation mode: last year's runner-up, Carl Edwards.
He has yet to win a race this season after nearly capturing the title in 2011, and this was another tough night in a frustrating season. The No. 99 car started smoking on lap 264, apparently from a blown piston. Edwards was done for the night, a devastating blow to his chances.
Last year, he lost the title to Stewart on a tiebreaker in the final race of the season. Now, he absolutely must win at Richmond — and even that may not be enough to get him into the playoff.
"I'm not a real religious person, but it's like somebody's trying to reach me a lesson," Edwards said. "We're going to Richmond, where anything can happen. Hopefully, whatever happens involves us winning the race and getting in the Chase."
The race was a snoozer much of the night, the field spreading out all over the 1.54-mile tri-oval, with a handful of drivers running up front while everyone else just struggled to stay on the lead lap. Busch dominated early on, leading a total of 66 laps. Then it was Harvick's turn to set the pace, leading the field for 101 laps. Hamlin wound up leading the most laps, 105, but Truex appeared to have the strongest car at the end — until that final caution came out.
"It just wasn't meant to be, I guess," said Truex, who led 40 laps.
The first big wreck occurred on lap 269, when Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. got pinched by Johnson on the backstretch after a restart. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet turned sharply into the outside 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," said Newman, another of those in a must-win at Richmond.
That's not a concern for Hamlin.
He's already got his sights on the bigger prize — his first Sprint Cup title.
"We have a lot of momentum now," Hamlin said. "I will try to take advantage of it."
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