Denny Hamlin smokes the tires in celebration
By Mike Mulhern
Denny Hamlin became the first man this season to put together back-to-back wins, adding Sunday night's Atlanta 500 to last weekend's Bristol 500, on an evening when all but two spots in the championship playoffs were decided.
The top nine in the Sprint Cup standings going into the final race of the regular season, next weekend at Richmond, are now locked into the chase, which opens in Chicago Sept. 16th. Tony Stewart, who started from the pole here but suffered through a dismal night, is guaranteed at least a wild card spot in the chase, with three wins.
"We had such a strong car for three-quarters of the race," Hamlin said. "But it wore the splitter out, and that hurt us at the end. But when you start to falter, start to fade, you've got to have something to pull you out of it, and tonight that was our pit crew."
Crew chief Darian Grubb's strategy -- fuel mileage and tire windows -- frustrated Hamlin throughout the night, as the two gave up a lot of time and speed to Kevin Harvick while stretching fuel. Harvick and Hamlin appeared to have the cars to beat most of the evening, each leading 150 miles of the 500-miler.
Down the stretch, though, Martin Truex Jr. was suddenly in command, after a series of pit stops, and Truex was holding an easy lead when with less than 10 miles to go Jamie McMurray's right-front tire blew, bringing out the key caution.
Victorious! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
With only 13 men still on the lead lap, and with fresh tires a very big advantage all 13 pitted for four tires.
Hamlin's crew got him off pit road first, just ahead of Truex. Hamlin took the inside line, and Truex got a bad start, falling back to fifth, as Jeff Gordon charged into contention.
Gordon, who needs to win Richmond now to have a shot at the playoffs, made a vigorous charge at Hamlin in the two-lap green-white-checkered finish. But he came up two lengths shy.
"I got everything I could ask for -- the restart I wanted, and he made a mistake off turn two.... and then I just made a bad decision," Gordon said.
"I should have just run into the back of him and pushed him up the track. If we'd done that, we'd be in victory lane right now.
"And the chase is too important for me not to make a move like that. I guess I'm getting soft in my old age. Fifteen years ago I'd have just pushed him out of the way.
"We had the run...we just didn't do enough with it."
"I drove in the corner way beyond my talent level, and slid up the track," Hamlin said. "I knew how desperate Gordon is for the win....but we treat each other with respect, and I feel I've earned that respect that he showed me the last lap. And if it's the other way around the next time, he'll get that same respect from me."
Ryan Newman: playoff hopes all but over (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It looks like the battle for the second wild card spot will be mano a mano between Gordon and Kyle Busch, with Gordon needing to win Richmond or at least finish 12 spots ahead of Busch.
"You don't want to go to Richmond trying to finish that far ahead of Kyle," Gordon said, referring to Busch's excellent finishing record at that three-quarter-mile track. "So I'm looking at it as we have to win that race."
Hamlin now has four tour wins this season, more than anyone else, which would likely put him atop the standings for the first event of the 10-race chase.
"Just spun the tires," a dejected Truex said. He is still looking for his first win of the year. At least Truex is locked into the chase.
"I'm 70 percent happy for us, and 30 percent sad for Martin and those guys, because they are teammates with us," Hamlin said.
The finish line: Denny Hamlin, followed by Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In the night's two most significant incidents:
-- Jimmie Johnson, running top-10 most of the race but not really with a dominant car, took himself out of the game in a surprising incident on a late restart. Johnson, side by side with Sam Hornish racing for position, tried to squeeze Hornish up the track...just as Ryan Newman was barreling along on the high side. And the three banged into each other. Hornish managed to recover, but Johnson and Newman were both sidelined.
-- Carl Edwards lost virtually any chance of making the chase when his engine blew late in the 3-1/2-hour event.
"This is not the interview I wanted to do," a clearly pained Edwards said. Last season he had the best finishing average on the tour, tied for the points lead at the end, and lost the title on a tie-breaker, victories. This season has been a series of aggravating issues.
This night it was a piston. "It started making noise about 25 or 30 laps before it went....
"...and it's just hard to put into words. That's just how our season has been going, and I don't know what the reason is.
"But we'll go to Richmond and go win that race, and somehow maybe a miracle will happen, we'll make the chase and go win this championship. That's our mission."
However Edwards hasn't won a tour event in nearly a year and a half...
Tony Stewart (L) and Greg Biffle at the starting line....but they were never factors in the race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I'm not a religious man really, but somebody is trying to teach me something here," Edwards said. "This is not fun.
"Anything can happen. I don't ever quit, and this team doesn't ever quit. But man, that's getting kicked when you're down, right there. That's not what we needed.
"But we've got big shoulders. If anybody can take it, we'll take it.
"A bad day at the race track is better than a good day doing almost anything else.
"I'm just trying to come to grips with how pivotal this is for our season... how bad it is.
"But that's just the way it is.
"I just can't believe this. We've never had this much bad luck.
"I've been trying to live right and do the right things... so I hope there's a reason for all of this.
"But man, it's just so frustrating."
A beautiful night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and a crowd pegged by NASCAR at 90,000 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)