By Jeff Wolfe
There’s a lot that goes into winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. And what sometimes looks like a sure victory, can disappear in an instant.
Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each experienced that first hand Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Hamlin won his second straight Sprint Cup race and his fourth of the season as he was one of ten drivers to clinch a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the sport’s version of the playoffs, which is the final ten races of the season.
This win was at least in part clinched by Hamlin’s pit crew. The final yellow of the night came out with five laps remaining when Jamie McMurray blew a right front tire and hit the wall in the quad-oval. At the time, Truex Jr. appeared to be on the way to his first win of the season, with about a two-second lead over Jeff Gordon. While Truex definitely did not want to see the yellow, it was just what the rest of the contenders needed.
Hamlin’s pit crew gave him the lead coming off pit road, followed by Truex Jr. and Gordon. Hamlin then held off Gordon on the final two green flag laps for his 21st career victory.
“This is one I wanted real bad,” said Hamlin, who led a race-high 105 laps out of 325 on the 1.54-mile oval. “Last week (at Bristol) was the big one, no doubt about it. I’ve been really good at Atlanta the last few years and never won. The pit crew won me the race and that is what a championship team is all about is having all the pieces of the puzzle put together.”
Truex has had a solid season and is guaranteed a place in the Chase, but is still missing the victory piece of his puzzle. He appeared to be on the way to his first win since 2007 before McMurray brought out the caution. Truex, who led 40 laps, wasn’t a factor for the lead on the final restart.
“I just spun the tires,” Truex Jr. said. “All night I had trouble on the outside. When I got to third (gear), I just smoked the tires like a dragster. It just wasn’t meant to be. I sure didn’t want to see that caution. We had them covered. But such is life.”
While Hamlin was jubilant in victory, it wasn’t without feeling for Truex as they each drive Toyotas, Hamlin for Joe Gibbs Racing and Truex for Michael Waltrip Racing.
“It was a new lease on life,” Hamlin said of the final caution. “I’m 70 percent happy for us and 30 percent sad for Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex, Jr. One way or another, they are teammates with us.”
Gordon was more upset at himself, than sad. He is 12 points behind Kyle Busch in the race for the second wild-card spot. They each have one win and the final two spots will be decided by who has the most wins.
Gordon got close to Hamlin on the final lap, but couldn’t make the winning pass.
“We were pretty good on short runs, but the long runs are what hurt us,” said Gordon, who has six top-five finishes this season. “I got everything I could ask for. I got the restart I wanted and got to the outside. He (Hamlin) made a mistake off two and I got a run on him and I made a bad decision. I should have run into the back of him going into three and run him up the racetrack. I would be sitting in Victory Lane right now. This chase is too important for me not to make a move like that. I wouldn’t have wanted to have wreck him, but I would like to have that one over again.”
The rest of the top-10 after Gordon was Brad Keselowski, Truex, Kevin Harvick, who led 101 laps, Kyle Busch, who led 66 laps, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin in front of an estimated crowd of 90,300.
The biggest accident of the night came on a restart on lap 271. Jimmie Johnson appeared to go up into Sam Hornish, who was running next to Ryan Newman. The crash ended the nights for Newman and Johnson, while Hornish recovered to finish 11th. Newman, who finished 35th, saw his chances of making the Chase take a serious blow.
“It looked like the 48 ran everybody out of room,” Newman said.
The only way Newman can get into the Chase now is to win the final race of the regular season, the Federated Auto Parts 400 next weekend in Richmond and hope that Kyle Busch doesn’t race his way into the top-10. Coverage starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at Richmond, on ABC.Share this article