HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Denny Hamlin celebrated his second straight triumph Sunday night, looking more and more like he'll be the driver to beat heading into the Sprint Cup playoff.
Jeff Gordon was kicking himself for letting a desperately needed win slip away, while Martin Truex Jr. couldn't help but wonder just what it will take to get back to victory lane.
Hamlin took advantage of a fortuitous yellow flag with three laps to go, beating Truex off pit road and fending off Gordon on the final lap in a green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"We have a lot of momentum now," Hamlin said. "I will try to take advantage of it."
After a largely uneventful race, all sorts of subplots developed on the harried dash to the finish.
Hamlin knew a series-leading fourth win of the season would put him in position to top the standings when the 12-driver Chase begins after next weekend's race at Richmond. Also on his mind was keeping Gordon from getting to the line first, which would have given his playoff hopes a big boost — at the expense of Kyle Busch and Joey 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."
Gordon, it turned out, didn't do what he needed to do.
The four-time Cup champion was positioned to pull off a pass on Hamlin going through turns three and four, but he got too tentative making his move on the leader. Instead of getting right on his quarter-panel, which might have caused Hamlin's car to wobble, Gordon went in with too much speed and drifted up near the wall going through the high-banked turn, allowing Hamlin to pull 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."
Truex 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 came out.
"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.