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.
With his series-leading fourth win of the season, Hamlin put himself in position to top the standings when the 12-driver Chase starts after next weekend’s race at Richmond.
Asked if he feels like the driver to beat for the championship, Hamlin replied, “I don’t have to say anything. Wins are all that matters."
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. The four-time Cup champion desperately needed a win to bolster his chances of getting into the Chase, but couldn’t get by Hamlin on the final lap.
“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."
Gordon was kicking himself for failing to pull off a pass on Hamlin, saying he was too tentative going into turn three. Instead of putting pressure on the leader, the No. 24 car drifted up near the wall going through the high-banked turn while Hamlin pulled away.
Now, Gordon will almost surely have to win at Richmond to claim a wild card.
“I would like to have that one over again," Gordon said. “I guess I’m getting soft in my old age."
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 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.
Kasey Kahne, with two wins, has all but locked up a spot in the playoff. That leaves a bunch of big-name drivers who know, in all likelihood, they must win at Richmond to have a shot at getting into the Chase — including Gordon, Kyle Busch and last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards.
It was another tough night for Edwards, who has yet to win a race this season after nearly winning the title in 2011. 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 last year’s championship 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.
Also on Sunday:
Hunter-Reay wins Grand
Prix of Baltimore
BALTIMORE — Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Grand Prix of Baltimore, a victory that keeps alive his hopes of winning the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. Will Power could have clinched the overall title with a win, but the pole sitter finished sixth in a race that drew nine caution flags and was marred by rain. Power will take a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay into the final race of the year, on the oval in Fontana, Calif., on Sept. 15.
Button wins Belgian GP
SPA, Belgium — Jenson Button coasted to his second victory of the season at the Belgian Grand Prix, with Formula One championship leader Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton forced out after a spectacular crash at the start. It was Button’s first victory at Spa and No. 14 for the British driver’s career. He led from start to finish, oblivious to the mayhem behind him.
Rain washes out NHRA schedule
CLERMONT, Ind. — Remnants of Hurricane Isaac reached Indiana, with steady rain and standing water forcing NHRA officials to cancel the final two qualifying sessions for the U.S. Nationals. The fields for the final eliminations today were established by qualifying sessions Friday and Saturday.