Hamlin Stands Tall As Chase Nears
HAMPTON, Ga. – A fast pit stop when it mattered allowed Denny Hamlin to grab his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway and tentatively giving him the top seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Martin Truex, Jr., who was looking to snap a 191-race winless streak, had a two-second lead over Jeff Gordon with five laps left during the AdvoCare 500 when Jamie McMurray lost a tire in front of the leaders on the front stretch. The resulting debris led to a caution flag and one final round of pit stops.
Truex led the field down pit road under caution, but it was Hamlin who came off pit road with the lead after coming down pit in third position. Truex followed Hamlin off pit road, with Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in tow.
Hamlin got a jump on the field during the restart as Truex spun his tires, allowing Gordon to drive into second. Gordon, who desperately needed a victory to improve his Chase chances, tried everything he could to pass Hamlin in the final two laps.
Gordon was able to get alongside Hamlin entering turn three on the last lap, but he couldn’t hold his line and settled for second at the 1.5-mile asphalt oval. It was Hamlin’s second-straight Sprint Cup triumph.
“This is one I wanted real bad,” Hamlin said in victory lane. “I’ve been really good at Atlanta in the last few years and not won. Pit crew, pit crew won me the race. That’s what a championship team is all about. Having all those pieces of the puzzle put together and this year I think we have it all.”
Gordon openly admitted after the race that if given the chance, he likely would have done things differently during the final lap battle with Hamlin.
“We were pretty good on the short runs, it was the long runs that hurt us,” Gordon said. “He (Hamlin) made a mistake off of two and I got a run on him and I made a bad decision. All night I was able to get to guys quarterpanels and get to the outside and stay there. I should have just run into the back of him going into (turn) three and moved him up the race track. We’d be sitting in victory lane right now.
“This Chase is too important for me to be in it for me not to make a move like that,” Gordon said bluntly. “I wouldn’t have wanted to wreck him, but I would have liked to have that one over again.”
Truex ended up fourth behind Hamlin, Gordon and Keselowski. He was clearly frustrated after missing out on his second Sprint Cup victory.
“All night long I had trouble on the outside with spinning the tires,” Truex said. “It just wasn’t meant to be I guess.”
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin completed the top 10.
Entering the final race prior to the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, the top-10 drivers in the standings have all locked up guaranteed Chase berths. Those locked in include Greg Biffle, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Truex, Keselowski, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart.
Only the two wild card positions have yet to be decided. Those positions are currently held by Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, but Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard all have a chance to slip into those wildcard positions.
Kahne has two victories and the only way he can lose his wild card position is if Stewart has a bad day next weekend at Virginia’s Richmond Int’l Raceway and falls out of the top 10, requiring him to use one of the two wild card spots.
Busch, Gordon, Ambrose, Newman and Logano all have on victory each, so a victory next weekend by any of them would likely guarantee their spots in the Chase. Edwards and Menard need to win at Richmond and hope for a bad points day by any other one-race winners ahead of them in the standings.
With four victories, Hamlin currently holds the top seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Stewart and Keselowski each have three victories and could tie Hamlin for the top seed if they win at Richmond next week.